Concert review: 4 December 2019

Soprano Gauvin offers MCO crowd a Baroque Christmas gift

Musical royalty came to town Wednesday night when the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra featured world-renowned Canadian lyric soprano Karina Gauvin in an all-Baroque program comprising a trio of sacred chorale cantatas.

The concert, led by Anne Manson, included the Winnipeg Singers (Yuri Klaz, artistic director), American baritone Thomas West and Winnipeg-based tenor Aaron Hutton, each taking turns coming onstage during the Christmas-themed program.

Gauvin, hailed as the “queen of Baroque opera” by Opera News, shone brightest Wednesday during J.S. Bach’s Ich Habe Genug, (BWV 82A). Its title translats as “I have enough,” referring to the contentment one (hopefully) feels after a life well lived. It was originally composed in 1727 for bass soloist but later re-scored for soprano, and it proved an ideal showcase for Gauvin’s expressive artistry. That included her gorgeous interpretation of the euphemistically monikered “slumber aria,” Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen, which became a gentle lullaby to usher the listener into that good night, floating on the wings of her supple voice.

Kudos to principal flutist Bethanne Yun Walker for her graceful obbligato lines on her wooden Baroque flute, and she took her rightful place at the front of the stage to accompany Gauvin, although it took several moments for the ear to adjust to the period instrument’s delicate voice.

The program opened with one of Bach’s most popular church cantatas, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (BWV 140) based on the Lutheran hymn, Sleepers Wake, with Gauvin joined by West onstage for its two duets that depict the metaphorical entwining of the soul (soprano), with Christ (bass).

After a sprightly introduction by the orchestra, the Winnipeg Singers, who have performed many times before with orchestra, appeared strangely tentative with their first entry, with the soprano section in particular lacking the requisite drive and energy to provide musical glue for the highly polyphonic work. Their cantus firmus line with its smoothly sustained tones that nonetheless soared up to heaven felt, well, sleepy, not aided by an overall lack of integration between instrumental and choral forces that more collective rehearsal time might have remedied. Even Gauvin did not always project to the audience, her eyes often cast downward on her score that became disconcerting and, frankly, baffled this writer.

Nevertheless, the duets fared better, including West’s wonderfully dramatic delivery with his voice perfectly balanced with Gauvin’s during the first, Wann kommst du, mein Heil? including concertmaster Karl Stobbe’s lyrical commentary. Their second pairing rendered as a ravishing love duet, Mein Freund ist mein! became heightened further by principal oboe Caitlin Broms-Jacobs obliggato lines that gilded this lily with filigree embellishment.

Hutton also made every moment count during his all-too-brief recitative Er kommt, his penetrating vocals well suited for its declamatory style as he crisply called “the daughters of Zion,” matched equally by West’s later, deeply resonant recitative So geh herein zu mir, sung with operatic intensity.

Another highlight proved to be the sextet of tenors — now given the cantus firmus — during the fourth movement, Zion hört die Wächter singen, that added both noble gravitas and purposeful resolve to the work’s narrative.

The concert closed with jubilant Gloria in Escelsis Deo, BWV 191, a Christmas cantata scored in three movements, including another central duet for soprano and tenor. Once again, Hutton more than held his own as a shining star in Gauvin’s supernova galaxy, displaying supreme confidence during Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui sancto, with his well-balanced tenor voice playing off hers throughout.

Then the gates of heavens opened during final chorus, Sicut erat in principio, which became a glorious celebration of the festive season, despite the choristers rushing at times like wild stallions as momentum built. Thankfully, the MCO’s three wise men, a sparkling piccolo trumpet trio: Michael Plummer, Dean Pollard and James Langridge, helped mitigate this effect while grounding the ensemble with their fearless, closely-knit playing — the hallmark of Baroque style.

Despite an increasingly gnawing sense we were all teetering toward the brink of collapse, and the arguably fraught nature of an entire program dedicated to a single composer (Gauvin is also renowned for her searing Handel performances, among others), Manson’s merry band of singers and instrumentalists still made spirits bright by their contagious exuberance, eliciting a rousing standing ovation by the crowd of 692.

Manitoba Chamber Orchestra
Karina Gauvin, soprano
Westminster United Church
Wednesday, Dec. 4
Four stars out of five
Attendance: 692