Opera audiences are used to gods and goddesses singing at great length, but what unfolded over the weekend from the baroque music group Tempesta di Mare had little context even for the most clued-in music audiences. In the program
Hoshanna! Hebrew Music of the High Baroque
, God (note the monotheistic capital G) sang arias and was a lyric soprano.
That was only the most outward manifestation of what had to be a cul-de-sac aesthetic or a prescient, proto-feminist one. Jews ghettoized in communities from northwest Italy to Amsterdam commissioned music in the mainstream language of Handel presumably as a public relations endeavor. In a pre-concert talk, Berkeley-based scholar Francesco Spagnolo explained that these communities wanted the world to know they weren't so different.
Though Jewish composers dominated later times (Jacques Offenbach in France, George Gershwin in America, and Gustav Mahler everywhere), this era required the participation of non-Jewish composers in a convoluted process involving Hebrew texts translated into Italian for the sake of the composer, and then fitting the original Hebrew onto the finished vocal lines. So the music requires tangy Hebrew diphthongs sung like smooth Italian.
The music's primary significance is that of a cultural object; on an aesthetic level, there's not a lot to say. The music is accomplished and agreeable, but wasn't out to be ostentatious or original - that would have defeated its purpose. Yet it isn't just a curiosity.
Tempesta codirector Richard Stone explained in a program note that the combination of growing up in New England isolated from his Jewish roots and coming to specialize in a Christianity-dominated repertoire (Handel's Messiah, for one) makes this Hebrew-language music deeply validating. Others must have felt similarly: Irvine Auditorium hosted an audience larger the typical baroque crowd.
The main composer was one Cristiano Giovanni Lidart, whose overtures are long-winded but not uninteresting, and whose choral writing (sung by the excellent Chamber Singers of Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges) is hymnlike.
More interesting was the second half, an oratorio titled Elyon, Melits u-Mastin, written around 1733 by a composer whose identity is yet to be discovered. Musically, it's full of lovely obliggatos for recorder and solos for trumpet, plus a text that pits an anti-Israel "Accuser" against a pro-Israel "Defender," with God mediating. The flowery artifice of baroque-music texts is replaced by a joltingly direct manner. You wonder if the piece foresees the torturous 20th and 21st centuries; then you're reminded that ours is far from the only horrific chapter of Jewish history.