Sherezade Panthaki takes the stage at a recent Ars Lyrica performance.

When Ars Lyrica Artistic Director Matthew Dirst first heard a recording of Alessandro Stradella’s San Giovanni Battista by an Italian group, he was immediately struck by the work. As a professor of musicology with an expertise and passion for early music, the piece was right in his wheelhouse. “I have a real interest in the obscure,” he says.

More than that, though, “I was taken by how ambitious it was, the virtuosity in the vocals. It’s a passionate story, skillfully composed.”

He knew it was right for Ars Lyrica. Stradella was a 17th century Italian composer. Born to Tuscan aristocrat parents, he studied in Bologna and made his way to Rome where, in addition to composing sacred music for Christina, the queen of Sweden, he was caught trying to embezzle cash from the Catholic Church. Throughout his life, he had numerous affairs, causing him to routinely flee from cities around Italy. He was stabbed to death in 1682. (The story of his death would become the subject of a novel, a play and—perhaps unsurprisingly—an opera.)

“It was a notorious life,” Dirst says.

It’s easy to draw a line between the Stradella’s infamous life and the sweeping, passionate story of John the Baptist he would set to music. The oratorio centers around John’s mission to King Herod’s court to his death at the insistence of Herod’s stepdaughter Salome. The Baroque score is vibrant, with phrasing that pushes singers to perform near-acrobatic feats.

“Our season theme this year is Out of the Box,” Dirst says. “So, this is all about stepping out of our comfort zone, doing bigger pieces, exploring the things that are not so well known.”

San Giovanni Battista premiered in Rome on Palm Sunday in 1657. Dirst says that according to Catholic customs of the time, theatrical productions took a hiatus during the season of Lent. Without operas on stage, composers instead turned to oratorios—unstaged pieces that often took on religious subjects—in keeping with Lent’s directive as a time of reflecting and sacrificing.

Dirst says he’s hoping that audiences find the same wonder and passion in the production he has. San Giovanni Battista brings to the stage a vocal cast of four and a 13-strong ensemble, including Dirst on harpsichord.

“We’re really looking to show off just what we can do with this production,” says Dirst. “It’s great fun.”

March 30. Tickets from $23. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby St. 713-315-2525. More info and tickets at arslyricahouston.org.

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