Times have changed. I remember when singers who specialized in Early Music felt like they belonged to the Island of Misfit Toys — relegated to repertoire outside of the standard canon for their insufficient technique, unusual timbre, or queer predilection form historical reenactment. Now there is a Family Guy meme circulating in which Meg Griffin is railing “You guys always act like you’re better than me” to her family in the next frame, dressed as if they were going to the opera with tails and top hat, staring back at her in disdain. The second frame is labeled “BAROQUE SINGERS” and Meg’s frame is labeled “Common Practice Singers.”
Of the current generation of singers who have distinguished themselves for the beauty and dexterity of their instruments, intelligence of their musicianship, and mastery of the affects, there is British countertenor Iestyn Davies. Chicago audiences last heard Davies in a concert with the now defunct Baroque Band; and as Eustazio in Lyric’s 2012 production of Rinaldo which featured no less than Elza van den Heever, Sonia Prina, Luca Pisaroni, and another countertenor. Among this superior roster, the performance which lasts in the memory is of Davies singing the Act 2 aria “Siam prossimi al porto.” Since then, Davies has gone on to become the countertenor of choice for contemporary works by Nico Muhly and Thomas Adès including the world premiere of The Exterminating Angel; has worked with just about every Early Music-specializing conductor one can name; sang the role of Farinelli for a Tony-nominated Broadway play; and has made over two dozen recordings, seven of which feature him — a rare privilege in the era of the mp3.
In his savvy appearances across various media (profiled by Details magazine, an NPR Tiny Desk concert, a Wigmore Hall podcast, etc.), Davies comes off as a sweet, intelligent, self-deprecating, and very likable guy. A guy you’d like to have a beer with. Fans who follow him on social media are familiar with Mr. Davies ongoing struggle with the misspelling of his first name. Just watch this conversation and performance with Julius Drake. I challenge you to not succumb to his charm.
Affability aside, this is not to say that he isn’t a BAROQUE SINGER capable of dazzling and enlightening music making. Chicago audiences are fortunate to be able to hear him as Polinesso in Lyric’s Ariodante and in an exclusive concert singing Bach cantatas with Haymarket Opera orchestra. That Haymarket, only eight years old and still building its coffers, should invest so much capital in presenting Iestyn Davies is a risk that needs to be rewarded with our attendance. Chicago deserves to hear an artist as important and prominent as him.
In Ariodante-related news, Ryan Opera Center’s Eric Ferring, who made a strong impression as the Young Servant in Elektra, takes over the role of Lurcanio from the originally announced Jonathon Johnson. I love Jonathon Johnson’s voice and hope he returns soon. In the meantime, we can learn more about Eric Ferring at the next Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concert with the superior pianist Madeline Slettedahl. I can’t say enough good things about Slettedahl. Her ten fingers are an orchestra.
In other Haymarket-adjacent news, Kimberly McCord, one of Haymarket’s best assets, performs this Sunday with Handel Week Festival. You may recognize her from Haymarket’s brilliant Junon in the City marketing campaign; but you should recognize her from her scenery-chewing Giunone in their 2016 production of La Calisto and other plum assignments like Costanza in L’isola disabitata.
Bella Voce chamber choir continues its season with an a cappella program of John Taverner and Gabriel Jackson. Locally, the elite ensemble is authoritative in Tudor repertoire, and, in the music of Gabriel Jackson, returns to a composer from whom the ensemble has previously commissioned new work (“in the half-light of dusk,” 2013).
The star of Lyric Opera’s La Traviata has been suffering from acute laryngitis. There is a strong chance that audiences will enjoy Ryan Opera Center alumna Emily Birsan in her stead. I wish Albina Shagimuratova a speedy recovery, but I also highly recommend catching Birsan if you can. Emily Birsan offers a distinct interpretation of the consumptive heroine, emphasizing the courtesan’s generosity, conflict, and dignity. Her “Addio del passato“ is world-class, and she is vibrant in a production which has a tendency to shrink rather than magnify the emotion of the story.