Pastor Fido

Despite ugly rumors to the contrary, there are still new things –even old new things — under the sun. When, for example, did you last hear George Frideric Handel’s “Il Pastor Fido” — not, moreover, in the composer’s 1734 updating but as originally set down on paper in 1712? If your answer is “never,” you’re probably right. Nobody connected with the Los Angeles Baroque Orchestra — which performed that very work, splendidly by the way, at Santa Monica’s St. Paul Lutheran Church, on Friday night — has unearthed any evidence of that work, in that version, ever having been given previously in these parts.
If Handel’s opera is known at all, it is from the noisy orchestration of some of its music perpetrated by Sir Thomas Beecham as “The Faithful Shepherd” (that being the work’s English title). That farrago, with its racketing snaredrums and squalling brass, enthusiastically hailed by a bygone generation that believed that Baroque music was supposed to sound that way, does indeed draw its music from the opera, but — as Gregory Maldonado and his instrumental and vocal forces demonstrated over the weekend (with subsequent performances on Saturday and Sunday in other local churches), it sounds better Handel’s way than Beecham’s.
The Handel opera is one of those pastoral nonsenses: Mirtillo loves Amarillis who is betrothed to Silvio who is loved by Dorinda but who himself only loves hunting and thus realizes Dorinda’s love after she puts on a bearskin and hides in a tree whereupon he shoots her(not fatally). This, apparently, was a hot scenario in Handel’s day; Jean-Philippe Rameau also set it, almost as beautifully as Handel. Wimpy text or no, this gentle drama drew out of both composers music of utmost charm, once in a while reminiscent of routine Baroque machinery but mostly radiantly beautiful.
Even with an orchestra of three winds, a few strings and keyboard, Handel — only 27 at the time — knew how to make everything sing. Act 3 of “Il Pastor” starts with a gorgeous piece of orchestral mood-painting, with oboes and bassoon spinning out a nocturnal melody that holds you motionless as it unwinds. Hard-hearted Silvio has a couple of rollicking hunting songs; true-love Amarillis pulls down one glorious tune after another.
The Los Angeles Baroque Orchestra has now completed its third year. Its players, for the most part, use contemporary copies of 17th and 18th-century instruments, and play them with authentic technique — a light bow pressure on the strings, for example. Best of all their playing is nicely animated; not for Maldonado’s group the notion that old music will shatter under a lively touch.
Some good singers showed up — skilled, like the orchestra, in the manner of voice placement and use or non-use of vibrato, and also nicely adept at adding a few vocal ornaments whenever a tune came around for its obligatory repeat. Mary Rawcliffe was scheduled for the leading role but took sick; Kari Windingstad replaced her on short notice, began tentatively, but was the full mistress of the Handelian long phrase, and even the Handelian trill, by evening’s end. Susan Judy, heroine of much local performance of music old and new, was a fetching Amarillis; barring an occasional lapse into hootiness, countertenor Lawrence Lipnik was a sturdy Silvio.
The altogether fine cast was rounded out by Sondra Stowe, Catherine McCord Larsen and Edward Levy — as the inevitable {ITALdeus ex machina {ENDITAL who comes on at the end of all these operas, announces oratorically than black equals white and thus that all mortal problems are henceforth resolved. Mr. Levy didn’t quite clear up for me why the lovelorn Dorinda was up in that tree disguised as a bear. But as the great Anna Russell keenly observed in another context, you can get away with anything in opera so long as you sing it. And sing it these good people in Santa Monica certainly did.