Music of the Baroque’s L’Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato

Handel’s pastoral ode L’Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato had its premiere in 1740, a time that found the composer making the transition from an ominously waning career in Italian opera to a brilliantly successful rebirth in English music. Based on the complementary elegies L’Allegro (Mirth) and Il Penseroso (Melancholy) by John Milton, the libretto by Charles Jennens cleverly intermingles the verses to execute a debate between the two emotional “humors” (as people of the time loved to say). As vividly demonstrated by Music of the Baroque’s first-rate performance (seen March 26), the piece inspired some of Handel’s most creative writing, including representations of birdsong, infectious laughter and crickets chirping blithely away on the hearth.

There was an excellent quartet of soloists. Tenor Thomas Cooley initiated Part One with an authoritative “Hence loathed Melancholy” and made a delicious thing of the fleetly scored hilarity in “Haste thee, Nymph.” Bass Christòpheren Nomura effectively announced himself with a velvety account of “If I give thee honor due, Mirth, admit me of thy crew!” and subsequently fielded the rapid passagework of “Populous cities” with distinction.

The two sopranos were very well matched; the performance found Elizabeth Futral’s brightly penetrating tone contrasting nicely with the gracefully floated timbral beauty provided by Lisa Saffer. Futral rendered the score’s most familiar melody, “Sweet Bird,” with great allure and technical responsiveness to the aria’s florid interplay with flute—and a perfectly calibrated, sustained trill. Saffer was enchanting throughout but perhaps caressed the ear most with her melting legato in Part Two’s “Sometimes let gorgeous Tragedy in sceptr’d pall come sweeping by.” Poetic inspiration flags a trifle in Part Three, with Jennens’s own Il Moderato, adjunctively added to Milton’s verses in order to wrap things up in a nice, morally balanced bow. It could be argued that Handel’s creativity attenuates a bit as well (he sometimes excised the entire section in performance), but there are some lovely things on display, particularly the bass air “Come with native luster shine,” and the duet “As steals the morn upon the night,” all dispatched with great charm by Nomura, Cooley and Futral.

The evening’s ultimate glory was Jon Gray’s banner chorus. The melismas in “Populous cities” were dazzling. You won’t hear more finely tuned, perfectly blended choral singing anywhere in Chicago—or anywhere else, I daresay.

Jane Glover led the thirty-one-piece orchestra with her customary theatrical flair. Flautist Mary Stolper provided a piquant obbligato in “Sweet bird.” Concertmaster Sharon Polifrone and Jonathan Boen made charming contributions on violin and horn, respectively, in the repetitions of “Mirth, admit me of thy crew,” while trumpeters Barbara Butler and Charles Geyer joined Cooley, the choral ensemble and the incisive timpani of Douglas Waddell for a rousing account of “These delights if thou canst give.” All elements together, MOB’s L’Allegro was a delightful evening for Handelian newcomers and aficionados alike and a notable highlight of Chicago’s 2011–12 musical season.