Did Pacific MusicWorks director Stephen Stubbs plan the performances of Handel’s cantata Apollo e Dafne to coincide with the sweet fragrance of daphne blossoms wafting in the spring air, a memento of the self-sufficient nymph who attracted—and rejected—the lust of a god?
Either way, last Friday evening’s baroque concert at Nordstrom Recital Hall, with an adept ensemble of stringed instruments, bassoon, oboe, recorder, harpsichord and two charmingly antagonistic vocalists, perfectly suited this unsettled season. The forces of light and darkness, heat and cold, serenity and passion are at odds in one moment, in harmony the next.
The bass baritone Douglas Williams, with his commanding voice and dark good looks, is your typical guy-god as Apollo: full of himself and utterly sure of his prowess. Puffing his chest and boasting that Cupid’s arrows have no power over him, he deserves to be brought down — and he is. Cupid’s prompt response comes in the spellbinding voice of Dafne (the enchanting soprano Amanda Forsythe, clad in flowing green) which pierces Apollo, singing “That soul is the happiest/Which loves its liberty alone/There is no peace or calm/For those who do not have an unattached heart.”
Enflamed, Apollo tries every trick to bed her, from coercion (the old “your beauty won’t last forever” line) to reason, to physical force.
There are goosebump moments as the god and the nymph twine their voices in a passionate defense of their positions, with him vowing “I will adore you forever” and her flinging back, “I will abhor you forever.” Her voice a lucid bubbling spring, Forsythe keeps Dafne’s manner serene and determined right up to her final words: “I would sooner die/Than loose my honor.” As Ovid’s story goes, she runs; he pursues, and as he grabs her, her legs send roots into the ground, her arms stretch into branches, sprouting laurel leaves. On stage, in a lovely gesture, Dafne lifts her arms, draped in green fabric, forever a virgin, as Apollo undone, bends his head to her and cries in remorse that she will be his sacred plant forever, a sprig of leaves his crown. Their voices and demeanor, supported by the ensemble, were entrancing from their adamant standoff to peaceful accord.
Another success for Pacific MusicWorks, this show (which included a Handel concerto grosso and Gloria) reinforces the excitement Stubbs’ group has brought to Seattle’s Early Music scene since its debut in 2008. PMW has collaborated with internationally acclaimed stars including visual artist William Kentridge and South Africa’s renowned Handspring Puppet Company, as well as Seattle Baroque dance specialist Anna Mansbridge and Seattle Dance Project, performing music from the 17th and 18th centuries on period instruments and pairing it at times with more contemporary elements. This fall Pacific MusicWorks will begin a partnership with the University of Washington School of Music, expanding the company’s performance venues to include Meany Theatre and its reach to a university crowd.