Countertenor Davies displays vocal gleam and casual bravura with Baroque Band

March 16, 2012

Iestyn Davies performed Handel arias Wednesday night with conductor Harry Bicket and Baroque Band at Symphony Center. Photo: Marco Borggreve

The friendship of Baroque Band artistic director Garry Clarke with conductor Harry Bicket has resulted in some inspired concerts the last two seasons. For the second year in a row, Bicket is conducting a Handel opera to close the Lyric Opera of Chicago season and once again on the company’s dark nights he is also leading Baroque Band in a Handel evening presenting a young British singer who has made a spectacular debut in that Lyric production.

Last year it was soprano Lucy Crowe, and Wednesday night it was countertenor Iestyn Davies, currently appearing in the Lyric Opera’s Rinaldo, who performed with Bicket and Baroque Band in Symphony Center’s ballroom.

The Lyric Opera’s current production of Rinaldo—which has just three more performances Friday, March 20 and 24—boasts a stellar cast of singers led by its star, David Daniels.

Yet in many ways it is Davies in the relatively small role of Eustazio, who is stealing the show. While Daniels remains the most acclaimed countertenor of our time, it’s hard not to feel the torch will soon be passed to Davies as the leading high-voiced male singer of the next generation. In addition to his critical raves at Lyric, Davies has also made highly acclaimed debuts this season at the Met and Carnegie Hall.

Davies, 32, possesses an extraordinary voice—unusually robust by countertenor standards, evenly produced from top to bottom, and able to encompass the most demanding music with seemingly little effort.

His Handel program largely avoided the usual countertenor greatest hits, and with sterling vocalism, and lithe, idiomatic support by Bicket and the ensemble, this was about as perfectly realized an evening of Baroque arias as one is ever likely to hear.

The opening item from Saul, “Oh Lord whose mercies numberless,” set the tone for the evening with Davies’ pure, bell-like timbre and faultless technique making for a spacious and expressive performance. The ensuing “Their land brought forth frogs” from Israel in Egypt went with pinpoint articulation and an almost jaunty swagger. In a real curio from Joseph and his Brethren (“The peasant tastes the sweets of life”), Davies threw off the fast central section with striking agility while bringing a sense of refined yearning to the aria’s outer sections.

The countertenor’s unfailing musical taste, sincerity of expression and easy ability to handle complex Handelian roulades were perhaps most strikingly manifest in “Up the dreadful steep ascending” from Jephtha, Davies blazing through the dizzying coloratura flights with an almost offhand panache.

The cantata, Splenda L’alba is not among Handel’s more inspired efforts, but Davies made a worthy case for this tripartite work written to Cecelia, the patron saint of music.

Other highlights included two arias from Semele—a notably soulful “Your tuneful voice,” rendered with confiding intimacy, and a quietly dazzling rendition of “Despair no more shall wound me.” Davies finished with three arias from Partenope, including a touchingly inward Sento amor and a raptly floated Ch’io parta. A pastoral encore from Rodelinda, scored with a pair of recorders, provided a fine coda to the evening.

An archaeology and anthropology scholar at Cambridge before opting for a music career, Davies even contributed his own learned and stylishly penned program note. Let’s hope that some enterprising Chicago presenter wastes no time in having this gifted singer back as soon as possible.

Harry Bicket directed the ensemble from the harpsichord, supporting Davies with equally elegant and stylish playing. In the instrumental items, Baroque Band’s gamey violin intonation briefly surfaced in the overture to Jephtha yet otherwise the playing was refined and fluent, with a breezy rendering of the Act II Sinfonia from Semele and a sprightly account of the “Alexander’s Feast” Concerto Grosso in C major, the latter with admirable obbligato violin solos from Clarke and Jeri-Lou Zike.

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