New: Elizabeth Baker’s Stunning Debut Recital (Review)

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Monday October 24, 2016 - 03:33:00 PM

On Sunday afternoon, October 23, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Baker appeared in her debut recital in Berkeley’s gorgeous First Church of Christ, Scientist, built in 1910 by Bernard Maybeck. This recital was under the aegis of The Handel Opera Project, whose founder, William G. Ludtke, conducted a small chamber ensemble that included three members of the Jupiter Quartet. In the magnificent setting of Maybeck’s church, a National Historic Landmark, Elizabeth Baker sang arias by Mozart, Vivaldi, Handel, and Rossini.  

Opening the program was Mozart’s “Voi che sapete” from Le Nozze di Figaro. In this famous aria, young Cherubino lyrically describes the confusion he feels in experiencing the first stirrings of love. Ms. Baker, whose voice bears a rich, dark timbre, was eloquent in the low register, though a case of nerves made her excursions to the top of her range come off a bit awkwardly in this opening aria. She quickly settled in, however, and in the next piece, Antonio Vivaldi’s “Sposa son disprezzata” from his opera Bajazet, Elizabeth Baker handled this very poignant aria flawlessly. Following this selection was “Stille amare” from George F. Handel’s opera Tolomeo. This aria sits largely in the low register, and Ms. Baker’s tessitura seems most comfortable in this low range of chest tones. Perhaps she would have been advised to use this aria as her opener, so she could immediately settle into a comfort zone. 

Next came what was for me the highlight of the program, “Doppo notte” from Handel’s Ariodante. In this dramatic aria Elizabeth Baker seamlessly handled all the transitions from chest tones to head tones, and her clarion high notes were beautifully set off against her lusciously dark low notes. Ms. Baker then delivered a second aria from Ariodante, the bitter “Scherza infida” in which a prince bewails the faithless treachery of his beloved. Ms. Baker fairly tore into this piece, expressing vocally and with gestures the bitter anguish of her trousers-role character. Her expressive genius showed in full force in the next piece as well, “Piangero” from Handel’s Giulio Cesare. This aria’s opening and closing refrains were sung softly and poignantly, while the middle section offered an angry outburst of fury from Cleopatra.  

Elizabeth Baker took a comic turn for her next piece, the famous “Una voce poco fa” from Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia. With coy gestures and gorgeous vocalism, Ms. Baker scored a hit with this great aria in which Rosina vows to outwit her amorously inclined and aging guardian so she can instead marry her true love, Lindoro. For the final selection of this recital, Ms. Baker chose an aria made famous by the castrato Farinelli, “Agitata da due vent,” from Vivaldi’s opera La Griselda. Here, Ms. Baker included some stunning ornamental improvisations of her own composition, thus mirroring a procedure favored by Farinelli himself. 

Interspersed among the arias were instrumental movements from each of Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Violinists Victor Romasevich and Michael Jones were outstanding in these works, as was cellist Leighton Fong. As an encore, Elizabeth Baker sang a lovely work by William G. Ludtke, simply entitled “Love.” It was a stunning recital in a magnificent architectural setting; and I’m sure we’ll be hearing more beautiful singing from Elizabeth Baker.