In a triumph of scholarship and art, Musica Angelica presented the U.S. premiere of Nicola Porpora's 1737 oratorio "Il Gedeone" (Gideon) Friday in Zipper Concert Hall at the Colburn School of Performing Arts. The exciting work was conducted from the keyboard by Martin Haselbock, who discovered the manuscript in the Austrian National Library.
Porpora is remembered -- by those who remember him at all -- as Handel's successful rival for the London opera audience. Although his music has faded into obscurity, he was a prolific composer and an important teacher, numbering among his students not only Haydn but also the castrato Farinelli, regarded as the vocal wonder of his age.
In "Gedeone," based on the biblical account of the Israelites overthrowing their enslavement by the Midianites in the Book of Judges, Porpora demanded no fewer than six virtuoso solo singers, giving them expressive and varied arias laced with demanding pyrotechnics.
Except for occasional minor blemishes, not one of the singers Friday failed in the breathtaking demands. The soloists were German countertenor Kai Wessel in the title role; Canadian soprano Linda Perillo as Gideon's wife; and Americans, bass Nicholas Isherwood (Gideon's father), countertenor Jason Snyder (an Israelite retainer), soprano Catherine Webster (prince of the Midianites), and tenor Daniel Plaster (a Midianite).
They showed exemplary mastery of Baroque bel canto emotional affect and heady stylistic flights. Their dramatic engagement with the text, even though singing from scores, rebuked the lackluster oratorio style we hear all too often today. Webster, Snyder, Plaster and Isherwood also sang as the chorus, proving that in a small space, at least, four singers could make as arresting an impact as a larger group.
Haselbock's leadership was nuanced and inspiring. Michael Eagan's Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra included the excellent Elizabeth Blumenstock as concertmaster among a group of equals.
Niklas Eklund was the guest Baroque trumpeter. In Gideon's aria "Cogliete, amici, il frutto di vostra fede" (Reap, friends, the fruit of your faith), he and Wessel joined in a dazzling achievement that caused wonder and delight. Bravo to Musica Angelica for landing the American premiere.