Late in his life, he was “an old man with a mania for composing,” but the Rev. Antonio Vivaldi’s musical productivity was also stoked by his decades of service on behalf of the conservatory-orphanage for girls and women known as the Ospedalle della Pietà in his native Venice.
Novelists and filmmakers have been unable to resist the salacious possibilities of a red-haired priest writing and teaching in a big building filled with marriageable young women, but the record indicates that there were only two really important women in Vivaldi’s adult life: the singer Anna Girò and the Virgin Mary to whom he inscribed his scores. What we have without question from that relationship is a corpus of remarkable music for women’s voices, and on Saturday night at All Saints Episcopal Church, the women of Seraphic Fire presented a beautiful and rewarding selection of it.
Choir founder Patrick Dupré Quigley was the only male involved in the concert: Thirteen singers were accompanied by a seven-piece all-woman orchestral ensemble, a nice touch that re-created the conditions under which Vivaldi first wrote this music. And four of the singers were guests, three undergraduates and a master’s student from the Herb Alpert School of Music at UCLA, where Seraphic Fire sponsors an ensemble artist program.
Most of the music on Saturday night’s program was sacred, beginning with the very first work, Laetatus sum (RV 607), a buoyant F major setting of Psalm 122 that floats along on a sturdy rhythm in the chamber ensemble. Several things were immediately apparent: The seven-piece chamber group — a string quartet with bass, organ and theorbo — was first-rate, and that Vivaldi’s habit of writing in block-chord formations (rather than elaborate counterpoint) adds a special kind of directness to the music that’s very appealing.
But the most notable aspect was the distinctive sound of massed sopranos and altos, a sound light but sweet, innately gentle and remarkably flexible. Ensemble was excellent, and the tone was pure and treble-like, and with the extensive remarks Quigley made throughout about the Ospedalle and Vivaldi’s role there, one could easily will oneself back in time to stand with all the other awed worthies who stopped by during the Venetian portion of the Grand Tour.
And it was also a night for the solo voice, with four members of Seraphic Fire stepping forward for a moment in the spotlight. Mezzo-soprano Margaret Lias was first, with a sturdy, well-sung version of the opening and closing movements of the Nisi Dominus (RV 608). The lone secular piece on the program was another alto solo, Cessate, omai cessate (RV 684), sung by Clara Osowski. She sang its lyrics of shattered love with impressive power, sounding very much like a Handelian heroine in extremis, especially when she dove into the very bottom of her register. The mostly full house at All Saints responded with sustained, warm and well-deserved applause.
Soprano Margot Rood, whose clarity of voice is ideal for this repertoire, sang the beautiful and familiar Nulla in mundo pax sincera (RV 630), with an unclouded, radiant sound, and alto Amanda Crider demonstrated remarkable breath control through the lengthy melismas of Jubilate, o amoeni chori (RV 639). Both women received, and merited, extended acclaim from the audience.
There were other delightful choral moments such as the springy In exitu Israel (RV 604), and the closing Magnificat (RV 610B) in a version for women’s voices; the latter had some fine solo moments for Rood, soprano Sarah Moyer and alto Emily Marvosh in the “Et exultavit,” and for sopranos Molly Netter and Rebecca Myers in the “Esurientes implevit.” Quigley also made a point of noting that it was the accomplishments of the decades of female singers and instrumentalists at the Ospedalle that were considerable long before Vivaldi arrived and for decades after he left, which is absolutely true.
And yet it is also true that the Ospedalle would be known to students of Italian and European cultural history, but few others, had Vivaldi not come along. It’s through his music, and pretty much his alone, that the Ospedalle and its exceptional residents come alive again, as they did most palpably in this excellent Seraphic Fire survey.