13 September 2023

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Johann Strauss II — DIE FLEDERMAUS (S. Hellman Spatafora, K. Pfortmiller, M. Liu, K. Richardson, L. Chavez, O. Poveda-Zavala, P. Suliandziga, B. Fields, K. Ely; Opera in Williamsburg, 9 September 2023)

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) soprano SUSAN HELLMAN SPATAFORA as Rosalinde, tenor PAVEL SULAINDZIGA as Doktor Blind, and baritone KYLE PFORTMILLER as Gabriel von Eisenstein in Opera in Williamsburg's September 2023 production of Johann Strauss II's DIE FLEDERMAUS [Photograph © by Opera in Williamsburg]JOHANN STRAUSS II (1825 – 1899): Die FledermausSusan Hellman Spatafora (Rosalinde), Kyle Pfortmiller (Gabriel von Eisenstein), Minghao Liu (Alfred), Kyaunnee Richardson (Adele), Lisa Chavez (Prinz Orlofsky), Oliver Poveda-Zavala (Doktor Falke), Pavel Suliandziga (Doktor Blind), Branch Fields (Frank), Kinneret Ely (Ida), John Cauthen (Frosch); Opera in Williamsburg Orchestra; Jorge Parodi, conductor [Adam Cioffari, stage director; Naama Zahavi-Ely, producer; Eric Lamp, costume designer; DJ Knopick-Barrett, lighting designer; Robert Kyle, makeup and hair stylist; Opera in Williamsburg, Crosswalk Auditorium at Norge, Williamsburg, Virginia, USA; Saturday, 9 September 2023]

Opera is rarely a realm of absolutes. Asking opera lovers to name the quintessential Italian opera is to risk instigating battles amongst the proponents of bel canto, the ardent admirers of Verdi, and the unapologetic Puccini fanciers. Händel was a Saxon who wrote many of his operas for London, but they use Italian libretti, as do most of Mozart’s operas: are they disqualified from contention? If the subject of queries is the iconic Viennese operetta, however, not even the most contrary music lovers would be likely to object to the selection of Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus. Since its first performance in Vienna’s Theater an der Wien on 5 April 1874, Strauss’s setting of librettists Karl Haffner’s and Richard Genée’s adaptation of Roderich Benedix’s little-remembered 1851 farce Das Gefängnis has been a beloved ambassador for its genre, enchanting audiences in parts of the world to which Viennese operetta is an infrequent visitor.

Like the waltzes for which Johann Strauss Vater and his sons are celebrated, the effervescence of which is often tempered by an undercurrent of melancholy, the music and plot of Die Fledermaus are not all Sachertorte and Trockenbeerenauslese. Though many productions focus primarily or solely on the jocular consequences of deception, disguises, and marital infidelity, vestiges of insecurity, self-delusion, and vulnerability dance to Strauss’s sparkling waltzes, polkas, and quadrilles. Presented in the lovely space and vibrant acoustic of Crosswalk Auditorium at Norge whilst the Kimball Theatre, the company’s home at Merchants Square, undergoes renovations, Opera in Williamsburg’s staging of Die Fledermaus fused fast-paced comedy with emotional sincerity, every action accomplished with theatrical flair and musical integrity.

The irrepressibly wily Leporello in Opera in Williamsburg’s May 2023 production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, bass-baritone Adam Cioffari returned to the Historic Triangle to direct Die Fledermaus, proving to be as clever in devising stage antics as in executing them. Supported by the company’s founder, Artistic Director, and producer Naama Zahavi-Ely, Cioffari earned the audience’s laughter with stage action that manifested comprehensive knowledge of the score and consummate comedic timing. Unlike productions filled with staging business that competes with the music, this Fledermaus was propelled by direction guided by the rhythms, textures, and moods of the score.

Costume designer Eric Lamp unfailingly transforms limited resources into memorably imaginative fashions in Opera in Williamsburg productions, but he achieved particular marvels in this Fledermaus with lavish attire worthy of Vienna’s most refined stages. With the added boons of expert makeup and hair stylings by Robert Kyle and stage manager DJ Knopick-Barrett’s well-managed lighting designs, the production achieved Opera in Williamsburg’s goal of showcasing world-class vocal talent in tasteful surroundings, Cioffari’s direction engendering scenarios notable both for their uncompromising fidelity to score and libretto—and to Michael Patrick Albano’s sharp-witted English translations of the dialogue—and for avoidance of the sort of nonsensical mayhem that afflicts some Fledermäuse.

As integral as the efforts of Cioffari and the production team to the success of this Fledermaus, the energy and ebullience with which the orchestral musicians assembled under the baton of Music Director Jorge Parodi animated Strauss’s music thrilled from the first strains of the celebrated Ouvertüre to the operetta’s final D-major chord. Numbering fifteen for this production, including assistant conductor and pianist Evgenia Trukša, whose playing of tambourine and triangle rousingly reinforced the rhythmic pulse of Parodi’s conducting, the instrumentalists’ performance of Jonathan Lyness’s reduction of Strauss’s orchestrations scintillated. Typically, Parodi paced each number, not least the mercurial Frischka of Rosalinde’s Csárdás, with a tempo that respected the composer and the principals, integrating inalienable dramatic sensibility with practiced coordination with the cast. Parodi’s work in Williamsburg consistently demonstrates remarkable stylistic versatility and an incredible affinity for nurturing ensembles that illuminate details of scores that too often remain in the shadows. His conducting of Die Fledermaus added to these qualities noteworthy accumen for finding the genuine emotions among the guffaws of Viennese operetta.

Portraying the bungling jailer Frosch—the figurative amphibious counterpart to the work’s eponymous bat, dwelling on land but thoroughly comfortable in the aqueous environment of drink—with raucous humor, John Cauthen delivered his lines in Act Three in a deadpan drawl that imparted the official’s ennui and exasperation at Alfred’s indefatigable singing. His droll articulations of Frosch’s lost-in-translation linguistic mishaps—Chevrolet for Chevalier, avocado for avvocato, et cetera—were all the funnier for being uttered without excessive histrionics. Large opera companies sometimes cast famous thespians as Frosch, but Cauthen inhabited the part with the intuitive grasp of Frosch’s function in the plot that eludes some interpreters.

IN REVIEW: bass OLIVER POVEDA-ZAVALA as Doktor Falke (left) and baritone KYLE PFORTMILLER as Gabriel von Eisenstein (right) in Opera in Williamsburg's September 2023 production of Johann Strauss II's DIE FLEDERMAUS [Photograph © by Opera in Williamsburg]Die Fledermaus nimmt Flügel: bass Oliver Poveda-Zavala as Doktor Falke (left) and baritone Kyle Pfortmiller as Gabriel von Eisenstein (right) in Opera in Williamsburg’s September 2023 production of Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus
[Photograph © by Opera in Williamsburg]

Identified by her sister Adele at Orlofsky’s ball as a member of the ‘corpse de ballet, the spirited Ida was portrayed with terpsichorean grace and vocal elegance by soprano Kinneret Ely. Astonished by Adele’s whirlwind entrance at Orlofsky’s villa in Act Two, this Ida’s critiques of her sister’s gown—borrowed from Rosalinde’s wardrobe—and uncouth behavior were piquant but good-natured. Both at the party and in the scene with Adele and Frank in Act Three, Ely’s voice shimmered as radiantly as her costume. In dialogue, too, Ely was a vivacious presence, her acting skills combining with her vocal prowess to give Ida a wonderfully cosmopolitan personality.

As the none-too-correct corrections officer Frank, bass Branch Fields donned the warden’s uniform with unmistakable delight. Arriving chez von Eisenstein to escort the master of the house to prison in Act One, Fields’s deportment evinced Frank’s inflated pride in his position, but the offer of fermented refreshment quickly diluted his professional demeanor. ‘Drum fort, drum fort nur schnell’ voiced captivatingly, Frank’s reaction to the assumed husband’s—it was of course the heroine’s determined swain Alfred rather than Eisenstein—heartfelt farewell to his doting wife was amusingly saccharine. Disguised at Orlofsky’s ball in Act Two as Chevalier Chagrin, as proficient a Frenchman as his Frank was a prison warden, Fields personified awkward charm, spouting faux mots en français with aplomb and singing strikingly. Both enraptured and embarrassed when Adele and Ida turned up at the prison after the ball, Fields’s Frank voiced ‘Die Majestät wird anerkannt rings im Land’ in the Act Three melodram boisterously. The contrast between Fields’s endearingly gauche Frank and his grave, portentous Commendatore in Opera in Williamsburg’s Don Giovanni could nor have been greater—or more gratifyingly effective.

Whether portraying romantic leads as in L’elisir d’amore, Così fan tutte, and Don Giovanni or enlivening supporting parts like Beppe in Pagliacci and Parpignol in La bohème, tenor Pavel Suliandziga brightens Opera in Williamsburg performances with unflappable musicality and affecting sincerity. His Doktor Blind in Die Fledermaus was a study in the art of acting with the voice. The core of the part is the terzett with Rosalinde and Eisenstein in Act One, in which the latter’s prison sentence is attributed to Blind’s legal incompetence. Suliandziga dispatched the Rossinian patter deftly, every syllable clear and every note given its due. His clothing preferred to his counsel in Act Three, this Blind was all too happy to relinquish his duties (and his robe and wig) and allow his clients to settle their own affairs. Suliandziga’s artistry lent Blind’s participation in Fledermaus’s plot uncommon significance, his time on stage beguiling the audience.

The impetus for the events that transpire in Die Fledermaus is the notary Doktor Falke’s quest for revenge on his friend Eisenstein for a prank that left Herr Notar in a public space, hungover and in a bat costume. The sheer pleasure that bass Oliver Zavala-Poveda’s Falke derived from his own stratagems resounded in his singing, the words artfully inflected. In the scene with Eisenstein in Act One, Falke enticed his prison-bound pal with a cunning account of ‘Komm mit mir zum Souper,’ the invitation to Orlofsky’s specially-arranged ball communicated with ebullient persuasiveness. Sharing the details of his plan with Orlofsky in Act Two, Poveda-Zavala imbued Falke’s lines with conspiratorial mirth. The high tessitura of Falke’s launching of the ‘Brüderlein und Schwesteelein’ ensemble in the Act Two finale challenged the bass vocally, but the dramatic potency of his singing was uninhibited. In Act Three, Falke himself seemed surprised by the total success of his scheme, Poveda-Zavala voicing his lines with unfettered jubilation. The gaiety of his depiction of the notary’s satisfaction upon claiming vengeance vindicated him of any suspicion of ill intent, but any Eisenstein would be wise to think twice before playing tricks on Poveda-Zavala’s Falke.

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) sopranos SUSAN HELLMAN SPATAFORA as Rosalinde and KYAUNNEE RICHARDSON as Adele and baritone KYLE PFORTMILLER as Gabriel von Eisenstein in Opera in Williamsburg's September 2023 production of Johann Strauss II's DIE FLEDERMAUS [Photograph © by Opera in Williamsburg]Das häusliche Glück: (from left to right) sopranos Susan Hellman Spatafora as Rosalinde and Kyaunnee Richardson as Adele and baritone Kyle Pfortmiller as Gabriel von Eisenstein in Opera in Williamsburg’s September 2023 production of Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus
[Photograph © by Opera in Williamsburg]

Last seen on the Opera in Williamsburg stage as the iron-willed Dorabella in Così fan tutte, mezzo-soprano Lisa Chavez found in Strauss’s Prinz Orlofsky another splendidly congenial rôle, the music wholly in the voice and the comedy suiting her innate theatricality. Even in a powerhouse cast, Chavez dominated Act Two, her exaggerated Russian accent elating the audience before she sang a note. [Especially ingenious in Chavez’s wordplay was a fleeting reference to Sesame Street’s Count von Count (‘One—ah, ah, ah’)]. The famous couplets ‘Ich lade gern mir Gäste ein’ were sung dashingly, the credo ‘Chacun à son goût!’ enunciated with devil-may-care suavity. No less entrancing was her singing of Orlofsky’s paean to champagne, in which the voice corruscated intoxicatingly. A handful of notes at the top of the range were effortful, but intonation was inviolably solid. Resolving the joke of Orlofsky’s years-long abstinence from laughing with a single gutteral ‘ha’ in Act Three, Chavez projected aristocratic bemusement, accentuating the parallel of the prince’s well-timed arrival at the prison with the fortuitous appearance of Richard Strauss’s Marschallin at the inn in Act Three of Der Rosenkavalier. In speech and song, Chavez made Orlofsky a character rather than a caricature.

The wiry, soubrettish voices to which the rôle of Rosalinde’s feisty chambermaid Adele is too often entrusted can inspire dread of the character’s numbers, but soprano Kyaunnee Richardson made Adele’s scenes mesmerizing. Blissfully untroubled by her very first note being a top B, Richardson voiced ‘Was schreibt meine Schwester Ida?’ entrancingly, and each emotionally-charged phrase of Adele’s part in the terzett with Rosalinde and Eisenstein was shaped with vocal finesse and shrewdness. In this performance, Adele’s arrival at the ball in Act Two, clad in Rosalinde’s dress, was delectably reminiscent of Carol Burnett’s legendary curtain dress scene in her ‘Went with the Wind!’ sketch, and Richardson’s voicing of the oft-excerpted couplets ‘Mein Herr Marquis, ein Mann wie Sie,’ her trills and top D lustrous, recalled the singing of Burnett’s friend Beverly Sills. As Adele exhibited her fledgling talent for the stage, seeking sponsorship for a career in the theater, the couplets in Act Three, ‘Spiel ich die Unschuld vom Lande,’ were intoned with musical and comedic virtuosity. In fantastic voice throughout the performance, Richardson reserved her best effort for the final scene, bringing down the curtain with a phenomenal interpolated top D, and her uncontainable smile brought sunlight to the auditorium on a stormy afternoon.

The opera singer and vocal pedagogue who won Rosalinde’s heart before she was Frau von Eisenstein is hardly credible if his portrayer does not possess an attractive, pliant voice. Treating the audience not only to a bewitchingly-sung traversal of Strauss’s music but also to tantalizing fragments of arias by composers including Rossini, Verdi, Gounod, and Puccini, Opera in Williamsburg’s Alfred, tenor Minghao Liu, wooed Rosalinde with the sophistication of Tito Schipa and the upper register of Alfredo Kraus. Serenading his former paramour from offstage at the start of Act One, he phrased ‘Täubchen, das entflattert ist’ lovingly, and both ‘Ach, ich darf nicht hin zu dir’ and ‘Trinke, Liebchen, trinke schnell’ were rousingly sung, Alfred joining Rosalinde on the top C that ended the act.

So ardent was Liu’s voicing of ‘Dein ist mein ganzes Herz’ from Franz Lehár’s 1929 operetta Das Land des Lächelns at the beginning of Act Three that the anachronism of its inclusion was easily forgiven. In the frenetic terzett with Rosalinde and Eisenstein, Alfred’s ‘Um Rat ihn zu fragen’ was sung with vigor, Liu’s Italianate timbre spotlighting the music’s kinship with Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. Such a winsome Alfred made Rosalinde’s reconciliation with Eisenstein slightly regrettable, but there was little doubt that the tenor’s ‘high D that [Rosalinde would] know anywhere’ had not been heard for the last time beneath Rosalinde’s window.

IN REVIEW: soprano SUSAN HELLMAN SPATAFORA as Rosalinde in Opera in Williamsburg's September 2023 production of Johann Strauß II's DIE FLEDERMAUS [Photograph © by Opera in Williamsburg]Die ungarische Gräfin beim Maskenball: soprano Susan Hellman Spatafora as Rosalinde in Opera in Williamsburg’s September 2023 production of Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus
[Photograph © by Opera in Williamsburg]

With a voice and keen dramatic instincts worthy of the famed stages upon which he has appeared, baritone Kyle Pfortmiller rightly established the target of Falke’s retaliatory subterfuge, the rakish but amiable Gabriel von Eisenstein, as the plot’s focal point. The errant spouse informing Rosalinde of the extension of his prison sentence from five to eight days, ‘Nein, mit solchen Advokaten’ in the Act One terzett was sung with rollicking bluster, frustration with Blind’s legal floundering surging from the vocal line. A very different, altogether giddy Eisenstein emerged in the duo with Falke, Pfortmiller’s voicing of ‘Das seh ich ein’ conveying a reawakened sense of adventure. The master proved to be no more savvy a liar than his servant in the terzett with Rosalinde and Adele, the inexplicable changes in Eisenstein’s mood and intended mode of dress—both depicted by Pfortmiller with dapper merriment—intimating that some clandestine escapade was afoot.

Disguised at Orlofsky’s ball in Act Two as Marquis de Renard, Pfortmiller’s Eisenstein was anything but vulpine in his mastery of his adopted persona. He was further befuddled by first Adele’s and then Rosalinde’s entrances, immediately recognizing the former and enamored of the latter. In the fareful encounter in which Eisenstein was deprived of his prized watch by the glamorous ‘Gräfin Hunyady,’ the baritone’s fervent singing of ‘Dieser Anstand, so manierlich’ hilariously imparted romantic infatuation. His Cinderella-like romp at Orlofsky’s residence ended by the reality of his looming prison sentence, this Eisenstein took his leave with jocular insouciance.

Reporting to prison in Act Three, the demoted marquis was surprised to discover the former chevalier, but this was supplanted by the shock of learning that his cell was already occupied by a gentleman retrieved from the arms of Rosalinde. The wounded husband demanding Blind’s clothes, Eisenstein angrily confronted Rosalinde and Alfred, Pfortmiller declaiming ‘Pack ich ihn beim Kragen’ with fury and, overcome by indignation, intermittently forgetting to impersonate Blind’s voice. His ego deflated by Rosalinde producing the coveted watch, acceptance of his defeat was Eisenstein’s only viable course, and Pfortmiller’s singing in the final scene gleamed with hearty confidence. The range of Eisenstein’s music is daunting, but moments of strain in Pfortmiller’s performance were offset by a bevy of spectacular top notes, crowning a characterization of rare depth.

Soprano Susan Hellman Sparafora’s Donna Anna in Opera in Williamsburg’s May production of Don Giovanni was musically and dramatically revelatory, divulging seldom-explored subtleties of the character and introducing a superb operatic talent to the Tidewater audience. The breadth of that talent shone anew in Spatafora’s portrayal of Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus, her singing of ‘Nein, du darfst heut nicht zu ihr’ in the operetta’s first scene proclaiming her as a peer of the most memorable past exponents of the part and disclosing susceptibility to the seductiveness of a good top D. Joining Eisenstein and Doktor Blind in their terzett, she sang ‘Beruh’ge endlich diese Wut’ commandingly. Vexation simmered in her voicing of ‘So muss allein ich bleiben’ in the scene with Eisenstein and Adele, climaxing on a forceful top C. Found by Frank in the company not of Eisenstein but of Alfred, this Rosalinde was a paragon of improvisation, uttering ‘Mein Herr, was dächten Sie von mir’ with unanswerable conviction and ending the act with a mighty top C.

Uncertain of the intention and implications of Falke’s invitation to Orlofsky’s soirée, Rosalinde donned the prescribed mask in Act Two with hesitation. The authenticity of the countess’s Hungarian identity questioned, Spatafora hysterically channeled Zsa Zsa Gabor, dazzling her fellow partygoers. Duetting with Eisenstein, her ‘Statt zu schmachten im Arreste’ was punctuated by trills that expressed Rosalinde’s ire. The well-known Csárdás, ‘Klänge der Heimat, ihr weckt mir das Sehnen,’ was the showpiece that it was meant to be, the soprano’s voice utterly secure even in the galloping Frischka and its ascent to top D.

In the final pages of Act Two and thr entirety of Act Three, Spatafora sang with abandon, pretense giving way to consternation in the terzett with Eisenstein and Alfred. The urgency of her ‘Ich stehe voll Zagen’ was galvanizing, Rosalinde’s predicament amusing but also touchingly human. Forgiving Eisenstein was here an act neither of necessity nor of magnanimity: the singer’s voice softened to a beautiful shimmer, this Rosalinde discernibly loved her husband. Portraying the rôle with emotional honesty as the foundation of the comedy, Spatafora was the ideal Rosalinde for Opera in Williamsburg’s Fledermaus, a triumph of artistry in a work too frequently debased by artifice.

13 August 2023

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel — ORLANDO, HWV 31 (D. Moody, M. Quinn, S. Dietrich, A. Young Smucker, P. Walker; Staunton Music Festival, 11 August 2023)

IN REVIEW: detail of Georg Friedrich Händel's conducting score of ORLANDO, HWV 31 [Image © by Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg Carl von Ossietzky]GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759): Orlando, HWV 31Daniel Moody (Orlando), Molly Quinn (Angelica), Sheila Dietrich (Dorinda), Angela Young Smucker (Medoro), Peter Walker (Zoroastro); Staunton Music Festival Baroque Orchestra; Carsten Schmidt, conductor [Timothy Nelson, stage director; Emily Becher-McKeever, lighting designer; Maria Bissex, costume designer; Staunton Music Festival, Trinity Episcopal Church, Staunton, Virginia, USA; Friday, 11 August 2023]

As their careers progressed, prominent singers in the first half of the Eighteenth Century must have come to know the characters who populate Ludovico Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando furioso, first published in fragmentary form in 1516, as well as they knew people with whom they interacted in their daily lives. So prevalent were operatic adaptations of Ariosto’s work that episodes like Orlando’s madness became fodder for parody, the excesses of composers’ depictions of the epic’s dramatic situations drawing derision as the Baroque era waned. Nevertheless, the appeal of Ariosto’s verses was so strong in the 1730s that they were the source for three of Georg Friedrich Händel’s operas for the London stage: Orlando, Ariodante, and Alcina. Appearing in rapid succession in 1735, the second and third of these were more successful than the first, which, following its inaugural production, was not revived until the Twentieth Century. Now regarded as one of Händel’s most original and stageworthy operas, Orlando accounts for much of today’s audiences’ acquaintance with Ariosto’s poem, the themes of which are thoughtfully expounded in Händel’s tautly-constructed score.

The cast assembled for the first performance of Orlando included five of the most renowned singers of the period, all of whom frequently collaborated with Händel. With the castrato Senesino in the title rôle, sopranos Anna Maria Strada del Pò and Celeste Gismondi as Angelica, the queen of Cathay, and the shepherdess Dorinda, contralto Francesca Bertolli as the Moorish prince Medoro, and bass Antonio Montagnana as the sorcerer Zoroastro, Händel would have been justified in expecting Orlando to be awarded a rapturous reception, but, despite a respectable tally of performances in its initial run, appreciation for the work was modest. Complex plots like Orlando’s were typical of Baroque opera and, if contemporary assessments by journalists and diarists can be believed, were accepted by Londoners with little complaint. Were the psychological nuances of these characters and their interactions the bricks in the wall that arose between Orlando and Händel’s patrons?

Bridging the chasms of time and sensibilities separating Twenty-First-Century theatergoers from Orlando’s marvels was a discernible goal and a notable achievement of Staunton Music Festival’s semi-staged prroduction of the opera. Presenting a work with theatrical effects as extravagant as those expected by audiences at the time of Orlando’s 1733 première at London’s King’s Theatre challenges any company, but performing Orlando in a space like Staunton’s Trinity Episcopal Church, the venue for SMF’s performance, begets obstacles that would have confounded even Händel’s storied creative shrewdness. Capitalizing on imaginative but wholly practical lighting designs by Emily Becher-McKeever, evocative artwork by violinist Ingrid Matthews, and straightforward costume designs by Maria Bissex that facilitated identification of each character, stage director Timothy Nelson conjured Orlando’s peculiar atmosphere with cleverness that minimized the venue’s disadvantages. The opera’s supernatural effects were handled with economy, but it was Nelson’s attention to the interplay among the characters that engendered the performances’s most memorable dramatic moments.

Nelson’s emphasis on the relationships that propel Orlando’s diegesis was mirrored by SMF Baroque Orchestra’s and conductor Carsten Schmidt’s focus on the intricate orchestral writing that contributes indelibly to the opera’s effectiveness. Schmidt both supported the singers and respected Händel’s directions by setting tempi that allowed textual and musical phrases to progress organically. Regrettably, adherence to Händel’s score was otherwise marred by numerous cuts and omission of the B sections and repeats of most of the opera’s da capo arias. [Orlando lost the accompagnato ‘Itene pur tremando, anime vili’ in Act One. Angelica was deprived of the Act One arias ‘Chi possessore è del mio core’ and ‘Se fede vuoi, ch'io ti creda’ and her aria ‘Non potrà dirmi ingrata’ in Act Two. Also absent from Act Two were Dorinda’s aria ‘Se mi rivolgo al prato’ and Medoro’s aria ‘Verdi allori sempre unito.’] The cast’s verbal intelligibility in recitatives, imperiled by the church’s acoustic, was substantially aided by lutenist and theorbist Paul Holmes Morton’s and harpsichordist Gabe Shuford’s deft handling of the continuo. Händel’s writing for wind instruments in Orlando is inventive, often recalling the operas of Campra and Montéclair, and SMF’s musicians performed their parts marvelously. In truth, there was no member of the orchestra whose playing deviated from the high standard established and sustained by Schmidt.

IN REVIEW: the interior of Trinity Episcopal Church (Staunton, Virginia), venue for Staunton Music Festival's performance of Georg Friedrich Händel's ORLANDO, 11 August 2023 [Photograph © by Joseph Newsome, Voix des Arts]Opera in chiesa: the interior of Trinity Episcopal Church (Staunton, Virginia), the venue for Staunton Music Festival’s performance of Georg Friedrich Händel’s Orlando, 11 August 2023
[Photograph © by Joseph Newsome, Voix des Arts]

In order to avoid the type of overwrought caricature that spurred the satirical spoofing of Baroque opera, the strategizing sorcerer Zoroastro—Orlando’s protector of true love and purveyor of reason—must be portrayed with ethical rectitude and vocal authority. From his first accompagnato in Act One, ‘Geroglifici eterni,’ powerfully declaimed, bass Peter Walker lent Zoroastro’s manipulation of the opera’s plot dramatic credibility and musical exhilaration. Entreating Orlando to abandon his amorous pursuits and resume his quest for martial glory, Walker’s Zoroastro voiced the aria ‘Lascia Amor, e segui Marte!’ commandingly, the divisions dispatched with ease. Zoroastro’s aria in Act Two, ‘Tra caligini profonde,’ was also sung with galvanizing bravado. The gravitas with which Walker declaimed the accompagnato ‘Impari ognun da Orlando’ in Act Three imparted the danger posed by Orlando’s psychological instability, and his thrilling account of the aria ‘Sorge infausta una procella’ palpitated with dramatic tension. Guiding the opera to its peaceful resolution, this Zoroastro’s noble singing of the accompagnato ’Tu che del gran tonante’ revealed the depth of his concern for Orlando. A few of Walker’s lowest notes disappeared into the sonic quagmire of the church sanctuary, but the voice’s burnished timbre and the singer’s skillful management of it were always audible.

Portraying the young prince Medoro, found injured in battle and nursed back to health by Angelica whilst concealed in Dorinda’s abode, mezzo-soprano Angela Young Smucker was more adversely affected than her colleagues by the over-resonant acoustic, yet the voice was projected with indomitable resourcefulness. Following Angelica into the fracas of Act One, his ‘E il mio cor da me diviso’ expanding her arioso into a duetto, Young Smucker’s Medoro was an eager but considerate paramour. The mezzo-soprano sang the aria ‘Se il cor mai ti dirà’ excitingly, her strong lower register reminding the audience of the character’s machismo, and ‘Consolati, o bella’ in the terzetto with Angelica and Dorinda was voiced with sincerity and glowing tone. The excision of Medoro’s aria in Act Two was unfortunate, but the prince’s words was uttered with significance. Young Smucker’s best singing of the evening was reserved for the aria ‘Vorrei poterti amar’ in Act Three, each note of which was produced with feeling and stylistic acumen. In this performance, Medoro’s reconciliation with Orlando was uncommonly sincere, Young Smucker having tempered the young Moor’s impulsiveness with inviolable integrity.

Surviving assessments of her singing by well-informed Eighteenth-Century operaphiles suggest that the epithet by which Händel’s first Dorinda was known, La Celestina, was appropriate. Her no-less-heavenly successor in the rôle, soprano Sheila Dietrich, enlivened SMF’s Orlando with a captivating, splendidly-sung characterization of Dorinda. In Act One, Dietrich voiced the accompagnato ‘Quanto diletto avea tra questi boschi’ with boundless charm, and, throughout the performance, the uncontrived lightness of her deportment differentiated the unpretentious Dorinda from the grander Angelica. The arias ‘Ho un certo rossore’ and ‘O care parolette, o dolci sguardi’ were sung with technical assurance and tonal shading that conveyed the shepherdess’s emotional transitions. Reacting to Angelica and Medoro, ‘Non so consolarmi’ in the terzetto divulged Dorinda’s dismay.

Dietrich’s voicing of the arioso ‘Quando spieghi i tuoi tormenti’ at the start of Act Two was sublime, exhibiting the theatrical genius that distinguishes Händel’s best operas. ‘Ed innestar tu vuoi’ in the duetto with Orlando in Act Three was delivered with urgency, but it was Dietrich’s singing of the rollicking aria ‘Amor è qual vento,’ its cadenza capped with a radiant interpolated top C♯, that won the performance’s most enthusiastic ovation. In the opera’s final scene, Dorinda’s joy and relief were palpable. Dietrich’s argent timbre was sporadically covered by the orchestra, but her avoidance of forcing tones allowed her voice to gleam untarnished.

The tonal purity and quick vibrato of soprano Molly Quinn’s voice arrayed Angelica’s music in aptly aristocratic colors and textures, the delicate subtlety of her interpretation of text not precluding fierce outbursts of temper. ‘Ritornava al suo bel viso’ in the Act One duetto with Medoro was sung with enchanting limpidity of line, the emotions as clear as the words, and ‘Consolati, o bella’ in the terzetto allied tender yearning with unnerving uncertainty, communicated by vocalism of unerring eloquence. Quinn’s time-halting performance of the hauntingly beautiful aria ‘Verdi piante, erbette liete’ in Act Two movingly evinced the inherent longing for tranquility that motivates Angelica. Bringing perceptible insight to Angelica’s dramatic development in Act Three, the soprano phrased the aria ‘Così giusta è questa speme’ with insurmountable assurance. In the duetto with Orlando, she articulated ‘Finché prendi ancora il sangue’ vividly. Likely falling victim to the unfavorable soundscape, Quinn’s intonation was fleetingly imprecise, but no momentary lapses in confidence undermined the prevailing poise of her performance.

The rôles written by Händel for Senesino pose a number of problems to modern singers of any gender. Most troublesome for some countertenor exponents of parts like Orlando are the strength and agility at the bottom of the range required by the music. One of the most noteworthy aspects of countertenor Daniel Moody’s performance as Orlando for SMF was the evenness of his voice across tbe part’s full range, no weakness compromising the lowest reaches of the compass. The ethereal sheen of his timbre immediately intimated an aura of mental vulnerability in the arioso ‘Stimolato dalla gloria’ in Act One. The accompagnato ‘Immagini funeste’ was acted as scintillatingly as it was sung, and ‘Non fu già men forte Alcide’ received a performance of engrossing theatricality. The famed aria ‘Fammi combattere’—its da capo observed, permitting Moody to venture demanding but tasteful ornamentation—was rightly a bravura tour de force, the fiorature sung with verve and virility. In the opera’s second act, the aria ‘Cielo! Se tu il consenti’ was voiced with élan, the words sensitively enunciated, and desolation echoed in ‘Dove, dove guidate, o Furie.’

The depiction of Orlando’s descent into madness that ends Act Two—and closed the first half of SMF’s two-part arrangement of the opera—is one of Händel’s most unique scenes, and Moody’s performance realized the music’s full expressive potential. Voicing the accompagnato ‘Ah stigie larve! Ah scellerati spettri’ with vehemence, his navigation of the alternating recitative and repetitions of ‘Vaghe pupille, non piangete, no’ manifesting the wanderings of Orlando’s mind with graphic realism. The warrior’s delirium persisted in Act Three, ‘Unisca amor in noi’ in the duetto with Dorinda and the aria ‘Già lo stringo, già l’abbraccio’ voiced with abandon. In the duetto with Angelica, Moody uttered ‘Sol ha sete di sangue il mio cor’ with anguished confusion.

Disbelief and self-recrimination surfaced in the accompagnato ‘Già per la man d’Orlando,’ and the magnificent aria ‘Già l'ebbro mio ciglio’ was sung with stunningly beautiful tone and touching introspection. ‘Per far, mia diletta’ and ‘Vinse incanti, battaglie, e fieri mostri’ traced the course of Orlando’s return to sanity, their texts accented with gradual awareness of the events that had transpired. Launching the opera’s closing ensemble, Moody sang ‘Trionfa oggi ’l mio cor’ jubilantly. Though the truncation of Hândel’s score was lamentable, Moody and his colleagues demonstrated that Orlando’s musical sophistication and dramatic cohesiveness rely not upon lavish staging but upon the earnest efforts of gifted singers and musicians who understand, respect, and dedicate themselves to serving the music.

11 August 2023

RECORDING REVIEW: Brenda Portman, Marianne Kim, Tom Trenney, & Dan Locklair — PSALM-SONATA & SUITES (David von Behren, organ; David von Behren Music)

RECORDING REVIEW: B. Portman, M. Kim, T. Trenney, D. Locklair - PSALM-SONATA & SUITES (David von Behren, organ; David von Behren Music 2023)BRENDA PORTMAN (born 1980), MARIANNE KIM (born 1972), TOM TRENNEY (born 1977), and DAN LOCKLAIR (born 1949): Psalm-Sonata & SuitesDr. David von Behren, organ [Recorded in First-Plymouth Church, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA, in July 2023; 1 CD, 39:43; David von Behren Music; Available from Amazon Music, Apple Music, Spotify, and YouTube Music]

By the start of his half-century tenure as organist at Virginia’s Bruton Parish in 1755, Peter Pelham was one of Colonial America’s most esteemed citizens, having already attained notoriety as both a pedagogue in Charleston, South Carolina, and principal organist at Boston’s Trinity Church. A pupil of Karl Theodor Pachelbel, son of the composer Johann Pachelbel, Pelham was renowned throughout the Colonies as an organ virtuoso, harpsichordist, composer, and conductor, his admirers including as discerning an aficionado as Thomas Jefferson, whose library at Monticello is known to have contained collections of music curated and published by Pelham. Though born in England, Pelham’s work embodied the essence of the fledgling American republic, his efforts in Williamsburg after the Revolution molding European influences and New-World innovations into an original musical ethos that paralleled the nation’s development of a distinct identity. Regrettably, Pelham’s own music for organ is lost, but his significance to America’s musical heritage is honored in every public and private moment in which the organ resounds.

In the 218 years since Pelham’s death in 1805, organists have continued to dedicate their lives and careers to serving their communities as teachers, worship leaders, concert artists, composers, and stewards of America’s musical evolution. Recently completing his Doctor of Music in Organ Performance degree at Boston University, Dr. David von Behren is as learned and tireless an advocate for the organ, the instrument’s ever-expanding contemporary repertoire, and music education today as Pelham was in his time. Recorded in First-Plymouth Church in Lincoln, Nebraska, employing the church’s spectacular, custom-built Schoenstein Lied Chancel organ, von Behren’s new album Psalm-Sonata & Suites presents works by living composers, just as Pelham did when assembling music for his published compendia. Furthering the espousal of modern music manifested in his American Adventures and Merry Melodies for Advent and Christmas programmes, the pieces selected for Psalm-Sonata & Suites are remarkably diverse, reflecting the encouragingly bountiful trends in writing for the organ. The unifying element of the album—and the quality that elucidates the unique beauties of each work—is the heartfelt expressivity of von Behren’s playing, here communicated to the listener with unfeigned generosity of spirit.

The first of the album’s cornerstone works, Wisconsin-born Brenda Portman’s 2021 Psalm-Sonata No. 1, traverses a three-movement narrative derived from Psalms 13, 91, and 98, the music’s depictions of the emotional transitions among the texts yielding a basic structure that is at once symphonic, recalling Stravinsky’s 1930 Symphony of Psalms, and devoutly intimate in the manner of a Bach cantata. In von Behren’s performance, appreciation of the subtleties of which is owed in part to the fine work of sound engineer Michael Raleigh, the Sonata’s fluctuating moods assume hypnotic, perceptibly personal dimensions. The Psalmist’s lament of divine abandonment throbs in the Sonata’s first movement, the desperation of the words ‘How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?’ starkly communicated by the music’s jagged climaxes and retreats, realized in this account with absolute control.

The confidence of von Behren’s playing is tested not by the technical difficulty but by the psychological profundity of the Sonata’s second part, ‘He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.’ The accuracy and brilliance of his playing are consistent throughout the Sonata and its companions on this album, but the lyricism of his handling of the serene repose of Portman’s tone painting in this movement is especially exquisite. The exultation in the composer’s frenzied figurations in the Sonata’s final movement, ‘Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth burst into jubilant song,’ cascades from the instrument in fanfare-like surges, executed by von Behren with boundless energy and affecting sincerity of faith.

Born in Korea and based in Chicago, Marianne Kim assimilates musical influences from all corners of the globe into tonal language that echoes the diversity of her own experiences and the intersections of sundry cultures. In the three sections of her Meditation Suite, whispers of the styles of George Gershwin, Ernst Krenek, and Michael Nyman are interwoven with vestiges of the forms employed by Buxtehude, Lübeck, and Bach. The Suite’s first movement, marked ‘Gently,’ creates an aptly contemplative atmosphere, the organ’s voices employed as in a discordant anthem, but von Behren’s attention to accentuating the piece’s innate equilibrium discloses a latent playfulness thar frolics within the music’s textures.

Every note sounded on this recording is executed ‘with feeling,’ but this direction in the second movement of Kim’s Suite is observed with remarkable fidelity, the primary-color feelings of musical theater juxtaposed with sounds of haunting ambivalence. As von Behren animates its aural dioramas, the third movement’s description of ‘Moderately’ is as much an explication of its character as an indication of tempo. Kim exercises moderation in thematic development, eschewing the kind of exploitation of the organ’s myriad of effects used by some composers to disguise banality. There is also moderation in von Behren’s approach to the music: rather than relying upon the instrument’s ability to awe, he emphasizes the profundity with which Kim’s music engages the organist and the hearer in an unspoken dialogue.

Resembling a sequence of antiphons punctuating the inaugural entreaty of the Anaphora, the Eucharistic Prayer, the six variations of Tom Trenney’s Suite breve on SURSUM CORDA demonstrate command of musical metamorphosis akin to the transformational acuity found in sets of variations by Beethoven and Brahms. Its melodic line constructed with the elegance of Hildegard von Bingen’s monophony, the Petit Plein-jeu with which the Suite begins is played with vigor that provides an alluring contrast with the subsequent Andantino cantabile, phrased by von Behren with poetic grace. In the context of the music’s liturgical associations, the Scherzetto and Quickstep are perhaps unexpected, but Trenney’s mercurial writing and von Behren’s wittily-inflected playing remind that, as recorded in 2 Samuel 6:14, ‘David danced before the Lord with all his might.’ The exciting Toccata brevis is a whirlwind of compositional ideas that von Behren tames with technical panache. This performance reveals the Suite’s concluding Benediction to indeed be a blessing for organists and listeners, Trenney’s musical journey reaching a final destination made a welcoming refuge for the soul by von Behren’s earnest expressivity.

One of America’s most respected composers of contemporary sacred music, Dan Locklair creates scores that are equally adventurous and accessible—traits also embodied by von Behren’s musicianship. Dating from 2007, the four chorale preludes of Locklair’s St. John’s Suite reimagine in sound verses from the Gospel of John, fashioning a concise but compelling survey of the life of Christ. Treating John 12:13 (‘Hosanna: Blessed is the King of Israel’), the joyful first prelude is played with rousing immediacy, the contours and meaning of the text imparted by von Behren’s articulation of tonal clusters. The anxiety and foreboding that infiltrate the prelude based upon John 21:15 (‘...lovest thou me more than these?’) are heightened by the tension with which the piece is played, the harmonic symbolization of the promise of salvation sometimes fading but always present. The solemnity of John 10:11 (‘...the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep’) is evinced not with grandiose gravitas but with quiet simplicity. As it is played by von Behren, the final prelude, proclaiming ‘...blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed’ (John 20:29), is a cathartic resolution, the comfort of faith rewarded dissipating doubt and despair. The mutual faith among composers and organist is prodigiously rewarded in David von Behren’s performances on this album. So, too, is America’s unabating faith in the organ as the foundation of the nation’s musical life.

09 August 2023

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Henry Desmarest — CIRCÉ (K. Gauvin, A. Sheehan, T. Wakim, J. Blumberg, A. Forsythe, D. Williams; Boston Early Music Festival, 4 June 2023)

IN REVIEW: soprano KARINA GAUVIN as Circé (left) and tenor AARON SHEEAN as Ulisse (right) in Boston Early Music Festival's 2023 production of Henry Desmarest's CIRCÉ [Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Boston Early Music Festival]HENRY DESMAREST (1661 – 1741): CircéKarina Gauvin (Circé), Aaron Sheehan (Ulisse), Teresa Wakim (Astérie), Jesse Blumberg (Elphénor), Amanda Forsythe (Éolie), Douglas Williams (Polite), Hannah De Priest (L’Amour), Nola Richardson (Une nymphe, Une prêtresse, Une néréide), Mindy Ella Chu (Une prêtresse), Mireille Lebel (Minerve), Brian Giebler (Un amant fortuné, Une euménide), Jason McStoots (Phantase, Une euménide), James Reese (Un amant fortuné, Mercure), Kyle Stegall (Une songe, Aquilon), Daniel Fridley (Une euménide), Michael Galvin (Phaebétor), Jonathan Woody (La grand prêtre du temple de l’Amour), Ashley Mulcahy (ensemble), David Evans (ensemble); BEMF Dance Company; BEMF Orchestra; Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, musical directors [Gilbert Blin, stage director and set designer; Robert Mealy, orchestra director; Melinda Sullivan, dance director; Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière and Pierre-François Dollé, choreographers; Jérôme Kaplan, costume designer; Kelly Martin, lighting director; Kathleen Fay, executive producer; Boston Early Music Festival, Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre, Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Sunday, 4 June 2023]

The source of many stories that have been told upon the lyric stage, Ovid could have populated a vast tome with tales of the metamorphoses that have transformed opera since its inception in the final decades of the Sixteenth Century. From the recitative-driven model espoused by opera’s earliest exponents to Twenty-First-Century scores, in which sounds are participants in opera in their own right, the genre has evolved in some way with the creation of each new work. Repeatedly rejuvenated and reimagined via the initiatives of musical innovators including Jacopo Peri, Claudio Monteverdi, Luigi Rossi, Christoph Willibald Gluck, Jacques Offenbach, and Matthew Aucoin, a story like that of the mythological tunesmith Orpheus illustrates the capacity of opera to continually transform not only its own conventions but also the expectations and experiences of its audiences. The finest performances and productions affirm that opera is a strange and sublime realm in which reevaluation is often the most effective catalyst for creativity.

A peer of Ovid as an inspiration to opera composers and librettists, Homer provided in his Iliad and Odyssey comprehensive studies of the superstitions and social mores of ancient Greece, masterfully paralleling the actions of ordinary men and women in his accounts of the feats of legendary figures. Unsurprisingly, the denizens of his epics have often assumed operatic guises, their exploits enacted upon the stage both as exciting entertainment and as symbolic representations of diverse social and political situations. Louise-Geneviève Villot de Saintonge’s libretto for Henry Desmarest’s 1694 opera Circé, a tragédie en musique of the type popularized in France during the latter half of the Seventeebth Century by the Italian-born Jean-Baptiste Lully, with whom Desmarest likely studied in the 1670s, translated episodes from Homer’s accounts of the tribulations of Odysseus into the operatic dialect cultivated at the court of Louis XIV. Adhering to the custom of the era by launching their Circé with a prologue designed to flatter the opera’s royal audience, Desmarest and de Saintonge crafted a theatrical work in which, propelled by music of charm and variety, the gender paradigms of the age were examined and excoriated with perspicacity akin to that with which Jane Austen scrutinized the gender biases of Regency Britain

Though the product of Desmarest’s and de Saintonge’s collaboration undeniably exemplifies elements of the dramatic convolution typical of operas of its vintage, Circé also contains characterizations of near-Shakespearean depth. None of Circé’s principal characters is uniformly virtuous or maleficent in any conventional sense: each actor in the drama is motivated by disparate agendas, the clashes amongst which—in some instances in a single individual—intensify the opera’s histrionic discord. Providing the nucleus of the 2023 Festival’s celebration of women’s rôles as inspirations, subjects, creators, and practitioners, Boston Early Music Festival’s production of Circé glorified the proto-feminism of Desmarest’s and de Saintonge’s depictions of Circe, Ulysses, and their companions. In this staging, their woes, borrowed from the pages of Homer, were fascinatingly timely, vouchsafing that the monsters of myth lurk within the miscommunications and misunderstandings of the digital age.

IN REVIEW: dancer and choreographer MARIE-NATHALIE LACOURSIÈRE as La Fureur (center) with the company of Boston Early Music Festival's 2023 production of Henry Desmarest's CIRCÉ [Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Boston Early Music Festival]Monstres d’Antiquité: the company of Boston Early Music Festival’s 2023 production of Henry Desmarest’s Circé, with dancer and choreographer Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière as La Fureur (center)
[Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Boston Early Music Festival]

Grandiose spectacle was often as integral a component of Lullian tragédie en musique as it was of the Nineteenth-Century grand opéra of Auber, Halévy, and Meyerbeer, and contemporary documentation of the production team assembled for the première staging of Circé at the Académie Royale de Musique in November 1694 indicates that bountiful resources were lavished upon the opera’s inaugural showing. Under the guidance of the Festival’s Executive Director Kathleen Fay, BEMF transformed the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre into a hypnotic realization of Circé’s enchanted island in which the characters’ tempestuous inner and outward emotions intrigued and engaged the performers and their audience. Precepts of Seventeenth-Century stage deportment as modern scholarship interprets them were honored throughout the production, but Gilbert Blin’s stage direction and evocative set designs grounded even the most fanciful scenes in lavish but gritty realism. Their exalted ranks and supernatural abilities notwithstanding, the figures in Blin’s vivid tableaux behaved not as pantomime archetypes do but like living, feeling people.

Dazzlingly opulent, tastefully erotic, and strikingly phantasmagorical, Jérôme Kaplan’s costume designs lent visual appeal and lucidity to the opera’s narrative without impeding movement by singers and dancers. The latter, their ranks directed by Melinda Sullivan and including the production’s choreographers, Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière and Pierre-François Dollé, executed thoughtfully-conceived dance sequences with urbanity and athleticism, their gestures often undulating in tandem with the cadences of the text in the glowing ambience of Kelly Martin’s lighting. Unlike many of today’s productions of standard-repertory works, BEMF’s Circé exulted in the piece’s eccentricities rather than seeking to disguise them with incongruous stage business. Blin and BEMF’s team of artists and artisans demonstrated that Circé is a work that needs rejuvenation, not rehabilitation.

Their work in much-praised productions of operas by Lully and Marc-Antoine Charpentier ideally prepared BEMF’s Music Directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs for successfully reawakening and energizing Desmarest’s episodic score. Guiding the continuo with the attention to detail for which they are renowned, the pair achieved commendable cohesion and consistent momentum, maintaining dramatic tension but avoiding anachronistic excesses. Led by violinist Robert Mealy, whose instinctual, almost linguistic phrasing engendered near-ideal support for the singers, BEMF’s orchestra met the challenges of Desmarest’s score with the virtuosity that frequent BEMF patrons might take for granted. Desmarest’s orchestral writing is predictably similar to Lully’s and Charpentier’s, but the playing of BEMF’s musicians illuminated Circé’s originality, particularly in abundant finely-wrought passages for winds. Sonically complementing the production’s visual splendor, O’Dette and Stubbs crafted a sumptuous instrumental gallery in which the kaleidoscopic hues of the cast’s character portraits shone.

IN REVIEW: tenor JASON MCSTOOTS as une Phantase in Boston Early Music Festival's 2023 production of Henry Desmarest's CIRCÉ [Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Boston Early Music Festival]Une voix d’un autre monde: tenor Jason McStoots as une Phantase in Boston Early Music Festival’s 2023 production of Henry Desmarest’s Circé
[Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Boston Early Music Festival]

Embodying the Festival’s homage to powerful women, the rôle of L’Amour was depicted not as a male figure as in traditional mythology but as an unapologetically ebullient feminine presence, animated by the effervescent performance of soprano Hannah De Priest, whose sparkling voicing of ‘Je reçois vôtre hommage, il est tendre et sincère’ in the eighth scene of Act Two epitomized the mellifluous benevolence of her characterization throughout the show. Heard as a Nymphe, a Prêtresse, and a Néréide, soprano Nola Richardson also sang refulgently, and mezzo-soprano Mindy Ella Chu enunciated the portentous words of a Prêtresse with vocal poise. In the second scene of Act Three, mezzo-soprano Mireille Lebel voiced Minerve’s ‘Il n’est pas temps de paraitre’ arrestingly, and the goddess’s wise authority was powerfully conveyed in every scene in which she appeared. Enriching ensembles, the voices of mezzo-soprano Ashley Mulcahy and tenor David Evans blended euphoniously with thoss of their colleagues foretelling future success in larger assignments.

A quartet of uniformly capable tenors inspirited an array of secondary rôles with vocal elegance and incisive articulation of texts. As un Amant fortuné in the fourth scene of Act One and une Euménide in Act Four, Brian Giebler sang with impeccable control and tonal allure, imparting the dramatic significance of each word that he uttered. Jason McStoots effortlessly scaled the vocal heights of Desmarest’s writing for Phantase in Act Three and an Euménide in Acr Four, and, first appearing as un Amant fortuné in Act One, James Reese voiced Mercure’s ‘Fuis loin d’ici, troupe odieuse’ in Act Four with apt authority. Kyle Stegall’s ethereal timbre shimmered in the writing for une Songe in Act Three and as Aquilon in the fifth scene of Act Five, his refined singing of ‘De la fille d’Éole, il faut combler les vœux’ heightening the consequence of the words.

Extending the superlative caliber of the vocalism into the lower compass, bass Daniel Fridley sang une Euménide’s music in the fourth scene of Act Four with imperturbable assurance. In Act Three, bass Michael Galvin intoned Phæbétor’s ‘Ulisse, il faut quitter ces funestes climats’ with urgency, the voice viscerally evincing the import of the words. Both in the music for le Grand Prêtre du Temple de l’Amour in Act Two, ‘Approchez-vous, heureux mortels’ voiced with stirring sobriety and stylistic acumen, and in ensembles, bass-baritone Jonathan Woody’s voice reverberated rousingly in the auditorium’s acoustic, his descents to the depths of his range reliably audible.

IN REVIEW: bass-baritone DOUGLAS WILLIAMS as Polite in Boston Early Music Festival's 2023 production of Henry Desmarest's CIRCÉ [Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Boston Early Music Festival]Le compagnon dévoué: bass-baritone Douglas Williams as Polite in Boston Early Music Festival’s 2023 production of Henry Desmarest’s Circé
[Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Boston Early Music Festival]

BEMF’s loyalty to artists whose work advances the Festival’s ideal of reintroducing neglected scores with a fusion of uninhibited imagination and fidelity to historical accuracy often begets fortuitous casting, and this production of Circé was distinguished by superb singing from artists who are much admired by Boston audiences. Returning to BEMF, where he will be heard in 2024 as Nero in Reinhard Keiser’s Die römische Unruhe, oder Die edelmütige Octavia, bass-baritone Douglas Williams portrayed the Greek prince Polite, a companion on Ulisse’s journeys who has fallen in love with Circé’s confidante Astrie, with characteristic suavity. Credible as both a rugged warrior and a tender lover, his Polite wooed with sultriness and warned with immediacy, voicing ‘Enfin, nous n’avons plus de témoins que l’Amour’ in Act Two with solemnity and electrifying vocal cogency.

Dueting with Astérie, Williams sang ‘Amour, que tes plaisirs sont doux!’ seductively, his phrasing limning the character’s emotional engagement and the singer’s command of verbal inflection. In the Act Five scene with Astérie, he again mastered the vocal and expressive ranges of Polite’s music, delivering ‘Ce héros m’a sauvé plus d’une fois la vie’ confidently. Uniting his voice with Astérie’s, his pronouncement of ‘Que ma joie est extrême!’ rightly ecstatic. Williams portrayed Polite with subtlety and depth greater than the character’s rôle in the opera’s action suggests that he possesses, but every choice was justified by score and libretto.

IN REVIEW: soprano AMANDA FORSYTHE as Éolie in Boston Early Music Festival's 2023 production of Henry Desmarest's CIRCÉ [Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Boston Early Music Festival]La fille du vent: soprano Amanda Forsythe as Éolie in Boston Early Music Festival’s 2023 production of Henry Desmarest’s Circé
[Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Boston Early Music Festival]

Rather than Penelope, the wife whose much-tested constancy is extolled by Homer and in operatic incarnations including Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria and Gabriel Fauré’s Pénélopé, Ulisse’s paramour in Desmarest’s and de Saintonge’s Circé is Éolie, a daughter of the queen of Ligari who has no counterpart in Homer. Regardless of the lady’s questionable literary provenance, she indisputably received an exquisite portrayal in BEMF’s Circé from soprano Amanda Forsythe. The diaphonous brilliance of Éolie’s first appearance in Act Three introduced a characterization distinguished by beguiling tonal beauty, verbal acuity, and artful ornamentation. The first words of ‘Désirs, transports, cruelle impatience’ revealed Forsythe’s Éolie to be a woman abused but by no means defeated by fate. No Ulisse could have been immune to the magnetism that emanated from Éolie in their first scene together, in which the soprano’s voice glistened throughout its compass. In the Act Four scene with Circé, in which the princess courageously faced her ferocious rival for Ulisse’s love, Forsythe intoned ‘J’ignore les détours de ce bois solitaire’ and ‘Moments où je dois voir l’objet de ma tendresse’ with contrasting distress and determination, ingenuously differentiated with shifting vocal colors.

Éolie’s daring mission to free Ulisse from Circé’s clutches coming to fruition in Act Five, Forsythe’s vocalism radiated the assertiveness of a noble spirit still enduring agonies but certain of the integrity of her goal. In her scene with Ulisse, ‘J’ai crû vôtre perte certaine’ communicated resolve that surged in Forsythe’s singing of ‘Ne nous quittons jamais, payons-nous des douceurs.’ Intuitively sculpting phrases with complete comprehension of the felicities of the composer’s settings of the librettist’s words but never over-accentuating a note or syllable, she garnered empathy for the unflappable lover she depicted. In lesser company, Forsythe might easily have dominated the performance: in this performance, she was a resplendent supernova in a gleaming constellation of fellow stars.

IN REVIEW: baritone JESSE BLUMBERG as Elphénor in Boston Early Music Festival's 2023 production of Henry Desmarest's CIRCÉ [Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Boston Early Music Festival]L’amant éconduit: baritone Jesse Blumberg as Elphénor in Boston Early Music Festival’s 2023 production of Henry Desmarest’s Circé
[Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Boston Early Music Festival]

If Circé can be said to have a villain in a conventional sense, he is Elphénor, a Greek prince and fellow traveler of Ulisse and Polite whose amorous ambitions supplant his allegiance to his comrades, yet his actions are spurred not by iniquity but by desire  The character’s torturous duplicity was the cornerstone of baritone Jesse Blumberg’s portrayal. From Elphénor’s entrance in Act One, Blumberg lent burgeoning tension to each of the prince’s exchanges with Astérie, the object of his romantic obsession, singing ‘L’Inhumaine me fuit, rien ne peut l’attendrir’ in their scene together with a rejected lover’s ardor and frustration. A different facet of Elphénor’s persona emerged in his Act Two scene with Ulisse, in which Blumberg’s forceful voicing of ‘Quand le bruit de votre naufrage’ prefaced an incendiary, conspiratorial account of ‘Quand on aime tendrement.’

Elphénor’s plight reaches its zenith in Act Three, and Blumberg responded with skilled vocal acting, words insightfully shaped into piercing declarations of feeling as in his tormented singing of ‘Je lui suis suspect, l’infidèle.’ Cornered by the suspicious Circé, the baritone’s intimidated Elphénor sang ‘Quand on a tant d’amour avec tant de beauté’ with audible trepidation. The subsequent discourse with Astérie, disgusted by the prince’s unwelcome protestations of love, drew from Blumberg his most affecting singing of the afternoon, the slight hardness at the top of the range conveying the emotional toll of Astérie’s scorn. Declaiming ‘C’en est trop, barbare inhumaine’ wrenchingly, Blumberg intimated the gravitas of Elphénor’s despair, the fervor of his singing making the forlorn man’s suicide genuinely moving. Especially when he returned as a spirit summoned from Hades in Act Four, defying Circé’s command to betray Ulisse and Éolie by divulging their liaison, Elphénor’s vocal line intermittently descended beyond the lower extremity of the strongest portion of Blumberg’s range, but every note of the part was sung with conviction and musicality.

IN REVIEW: soprano TERESA WAKIM as Astérie in Boston Early Music Festival's 2023 production of Henry Desmarest's CIRCÉ [Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Boston Early Music Festival]L’objet de deux amours: soprano Teresa Wakim as Astérie in Boston Early Music Festival’s 2023 production of Henry Desmarest’s Circé
[Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Boston Early Music Festival]

Although the proud woman’s disdain inadvertently precipitates Elphénor’s demise, Circé’s confidante Astérie was in soprano Teresa Wakim’s performance both pensive and fiery. At her entrance in Act One, innate conviviality resounded in her voicing of ‘Vous serez toujours jeune et belle,’ but, joined by Circé, ‘Pour les amants les plus heureux’ disclosed increasing uncertainty, evoked by the soprano’s tonal shading. A steely edge glinted in Wakim’s timbre in the scene with Elphénor, exasperation giving way to ire as the lovelorn prince pressed his suit. Building from her anguished ‘Ah! c’est trop retenir mes pleurs’ to a febrile performance of ‘L’inhumaine Circé, par un enchantement,’ the progression of Astérie’s disillusionment in Act One was realized with gripping directness. In the scenes with Ulisse and Polite that followed, Wakim deployed motivic vocal emphases to enliven each emotion, serenading her true love Polite with a caressing ‘Amour, que tes plaisirs sont doux!’ of unaffected zeal.

Wakim’s singing in the fateful scene with Elphénor in Act Three, Astérie’s contemptuous dismissal of his affection ultimately impelling him to take his life, coruscated with indignation and impetuosity, the clarity of her diction wielded like a dagger but lacking the savagery of true hatred. In the Act Five scene with Polite, the iron core of the soprano’s voice gave her reading of ‘Ah! vous allez périr sans délivrer Ulisse’ galvanizing potency, and she sang ‘Dieux! le cruel m’abandonne’ with insurmountable focus. Finally extricated from the strife of amorous entanglements and restored to her beloved, Wakim’s Astérie voiced ‘Que ma joie est extrême!’ with triumphant vigor. Instances of intonational occlusion in Wakim’s performance were laudably few, the technical accomplishment of her singing fostering a characterization that, while wholly authentic in style, heightened the surprising modernity of Astérie’s complex psychological development.

IN REVIEW: tenor AARON SHEEHAN as Ulisse in Boston Early Music Festival's 2023 production of Henry Desmarest's CIRCÉ [Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Boston Early Music Festival]Le grec enchanté: tenor Aaron Sheehan as Ulisse in Boston Early Music Festival’s 2023 production of Henry Desmarest’s Circé
[Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Boston Early Music Festival]

Among Circé’s ambiguous players, the legendary hero Ulisse is given an especially equivocal ethical constitution: neither faithful nor faithless, he pursues a course that is at once opportunistic and inexorable. The journeyer’s inherent restlessness was omnipresent in tenor Aaron Sheehan’s entrancing performance of the rôle, in which unerring musicality was fused with sophisticated theatrical savvy. Singing ‘Quel reproche cruel pour mon cœur amoureux!’ in Act One with exceptional musical accuracy and dramatic involvement, he extracted the idealized figure of legend from de Saintonge’s distillation of Homer’s epic and, with the aid of Desmarest’s writing, molded him into a man of joltingly current sensibilities. In his scene with Astérie in Act Two, Sheehan’s poetic but pointed vocalism evidenced the confounding contradictions of Ulisse’s predicament. Suffusing his proclamation of ‘La conquête de votre cœur’ in the scene with Circé with caution, Ulisse’s loathing for Circé’s infatuation seethed in ‘Désir de se venger, inutile fureur.’

The expressive vitality of Sheehan’s singing fashioned a performance of ‘Faudra-t-il toujours me contraindre?’ in which the spectrum of Ulisse’s reactions to his circumstances could be discerned in the tenor’s understated gradations of tone, yet even in his fraught meeting with Elphénor the voice was lustrously attractive. Dashingly projecting ‘O Ciel! ô juste Ciel! j’implore ton secours’ in the scene with Éolie, he lavished a stream of mesmerizingly lovely tone on ‘Quand on aime tendrement.’ Sparring with the increasingly volatile Circé in Act Four, Sheehan’s Ulisse unleashed a deluge of disillusionment in a galvanizing voicing of ‘Dieux! quelle injustice effroyable!’ The Act Five scene with Éolie allowed Sheehan to shift from fierceness to finesse, and the effervescence of his singing of ‘Que ne vous dois-je pas, adorable Éolie?’ persisted in an ebullient account of ‘Ne nous quittons jamais, payons-nous des douceurs.’ Rather than depicting Ulisse as a caricatured protagonist, marginalizing his unsavory traits, Sheehan embraced all of the character’s dimensions, his fleet, fetching vocalism rendering the negative as enthralling as the positive.

IN REVIEW: soprano KARINA GAUVIN as Circé in Boston Early Music Festival's 2023 production of Henry Desmarest's CIRCÉ [Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Boston Early Music Festival]La reine du rejet: soprano Karina Gauvin as Circé in Boston Early Music Festival’s 2023 production of Henry Desmarest’s Circé
[Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Boston Early Music Festival]

Separating the opera proper from its allegorical prologue, BEMF’s production accentuated the dramatic verisimilitude and musical equilibrium with which Desmarest and de Saintonge structured their depiction of Circé, qualities that were hallmarks of Québecoise soprano Karina Gauvin’s portrayal of the rôle. Although Circé’s tessitura is centered in some passages lower than the range in which Gauvin’s voice is most voluptuous, she characterized the protean sorceress as a sensitive, unapologetically sexual woman who maintained regal dignity in rage and repose. With her dulcet cry of ‘Ah! Que l’Amour aurait de charmes,’ Gauvin established her Circé as a woman unafraid of baring her vulnerabilities, but the doubt that undermined her joy in ‘Une secrète jalousie’ offered a glimpse of the severity of which she was capable.

Sharing her concerns with Astérie, ‘Pour les amants les plus heureux’ was sung with restraint, Circé seeming to distrust her own wisdom. Her statement of ‘Prince, vous connaissez jusqu’où va ma tendresse’ to Ulisse was as vehement in its way as her asseveration of ‘Votre amitié s’intéresse’ to his fellow Greeks was portentous. Gauvin sang ‘Changez-vous tristes lieux’ lustily, remorselessly bewitching Ulisse’s companions. Circé’s disquiet grew more pervasive in her Act Two scene with Ulisse, the simmering consternation in her ‘Quoi? vous n’avez rien à me dire?’ detonating in ‘Désir de se venger, inutile fureur.’ The scene with Elphénor in Act Three also bristled with incredulity, the soprano’s voicing of ‘Prince, je ne saurais vous cacher ma tristesse’ charged with vexation. The anger of Circé’s assertion of ‘Ulisse est inconstant’ to Astérie was tinged with sorrow, as was her poignant ‘Enfin il est donc vrai qu’Elphénor ne vit plus’ in the Act Four contest with Ulisse. Commanding Elphénor’s shade to rise from Hades and name her rival, ‘Dieu ténébreux du vaste empire’ was chanted with irrefutable authority, but, the name withheld, her desolation erupted into vitriol in the scene with Éolie, ‘Qu’ai-je entendu? c’est ma rivale, o Dieux!’ sung with abrasive bitterness. In Gauvin’s performance, Circé’s ‘Venez, Démons, empruntez les attraits’ was worthy of comparison with the frenzied outbursts of Cherubini’s Médée and Verdi’s Lady Macbeth.

The emotional gauntlet to which Circé is subjected in Act Five recalls the final afflictions suffered by the heroines of Lully’s Armide and Charpentier’s Médée. Acted without prudence and circumspection, Circé’s final scenes could educe parody instead of pathos, but it was in these scenes that Gauvin’s performance was most touchingly human. Deprived of her power to conquer by deceit, she was at last not a sovereign or a sorceress but only, fully a woman. Her exclamation of ‘O rage! ô douleur mortelle!’ was not shrieked but voiced with pained beauty. The venomous yearning for retribution that coursed through Gauvin’s singing of ‘Ah! quelle rigueur extrême!’ was terrifying, but it was Circé’s heartbreak that billowed most memorably from the singer’s vocal cords. For Gauvin’s Circé, the subjugation of her sorcery liberated her feminity, a declaration of independence as momentous in 2023 as it was in 1694.

31 May 2023

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: François Couperin, Tomás Luis de Victoria, & Thomas Tallis — LAMENTATIONS OF JEREMIAH – TENEBRÆ FOR TUESDAY OF HOLY WEEK (C. Humphries, Red Letter Consort; St. John’s Church, Richmond, Virginia; 4 April 2023)

IN REVIEW: historic St. John's Church in Richmond, Virginia, the venue for Red Letter Consort's Holy Week concert, 4 April 2023 [Photograph © by Joseph Newsome / Voix des Arts]FRANÇOIS COUPERIN (1668 – 1733), TOMÁS LUIS DE VICTORIA (circa 1548 – 1611), and THOMAS TALLIS (circa 1505 – 1585) – : Lamentations of Jeremiah – Tenebræ for Tuesday of Holy Week — Charles Humphries, countertenor and director; Red Letter Consort; Charles Lindsey, organ [St. John’s Church, Richmond, Virginia, USA; Tuesday, 4 April 2023]

It is impossible to know from precisely which origins and stimuli human music first developed. Perhaps it was a desire to mimick birdcalls and other sounds of nature that inspired song, or the failure of speech to adequately communicate certain emotions may have engendered the development of melody as an interpretive intermediary. Throughout its evolution, music has unquestionably assumed a consequential rôle in celebration and commemoration of humankind’s milestones, a rôle confirmed by the forced isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic to gain meaning from unifying diverse listeners in shared experiences of heightened expression. The effectiveness of music as a therapeutic medium for reconnecting with individuals with cognitive and memory deficiencies demonstrates that music engages listeners and performers in ways that are still only partially understood, somehow transcending even the most basic tenets of consciousness and cognizance.

At least since the Middle Ages, when the development of tablature and standard notation facilitated the preservation of music in printed form, music has been an integral component of commemorations of Christian events, not least those of Holy Week that honor Christ’s persecution, death, and resurrection. Encompassing virtually all genres, music for Holy Week constitutes a substantial segment of the Western choral canon, liturgical remembrances of Christ’s Passion and responses thereto having inspired composers for centuries. Imparted in works for both solo voice and choir, the spirit of awed reflection that permeates much music for Holy Week filled the space in which Red Letter Consort performed music that splendidly showcased the ensemble’s innate musicality, preparedness, and commitment to conveying the joy of singing even when voicing music of tremendous gravitas.

The setting for the 1775 Second Virginia Convention, the meeting of delegates convened in Richmond to explore paths to freedom from Britain during which Patrick Henry uttered his famed ‘Give me liberty, or give me death!’ address, St. John’s Church is an apt home, historically and acoustically, for performances by Red Letter Consort, founded and directed by renowned countertenor Charles Humphries. Serving in the Consort’s performance of music for Holy Week as both soloist and choir leader, Humphries curated a compelling sequence of settings of dolorous texts steeped in the humanistic pathos of Old Testament accounts of the sacking of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. Both accentuating the parallels in these texts with the sorrows of Christ’s Passion, as composers have done for centuries, and finding in words and music poignant bonds with present adversities, Humphries and Red Letter Consort liberated the music from specific liturgical contexts, fomenting in St. John’s a pervasive spirit of communal renewal.

Composed for celebration of Holy Week at Abbaye royale de Longchamp in 1714, François Couperin’s three Leçons de ténèbres pour mercredi saint enliven the biblical texts with masterfully-wrought aural colorations. The stylistic ingenuity found in Couperin’s keyboard music also permeates the Leçons de ténèbres, in which the musical language of the great French and Flemish masters of Renaissance choral music is distilled into vocal lines that are at once touchingly lucid and rich with detail. Beautifully accompanied by organist Charles Lindsey, Humphries’s singing of the first and second Leçons—those written for a single voice—exhibited unwavering focus on psychological nuances of the texts, each emotional transition, affectingly realized by Couperin, animated with sincerity and subtlety.

The intimacy of the performance’s setting heightened perception of the music’s challenges and appreciation of the commitment with which Humphries approached them. Notably, his articulations of repeated words and phrases were managed with great imagination, the word ‘Jerusalem’ uttered with contrasting ecstasy, pain, and resignation as the narrative progressed. The singer’s carefully-honed breath control revealed Couperin to be a precursor of Vincenzo Bellini as a composer of expansive, delicately-ornamented, bel canto-esque melodic lines. The technical assurance of Humphries’s vocalism was apparent in the infrequency of intonational fluctuations and stylistic inconsistencies, none of which detracted—or distracted—from the pensiveness and pulchritude of these traversals of the Leçons.

Offering their second concert to the Richmond public, the Red Letter Consort singers—sopranos Antonia Vassar and Kaitlyn Townsend, contralto Heather Jones, tenor Evan Heiter, and basses John Tyndall and Will Conn—began their portion of the performance with soaring accounts of three of the eighteen Tenebræ responsory motets published in Rome in 1585 by Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria. One of a handful of Renaissance masters whose life and career are extensively documented, Victoria benefited from the patronage of some of the most powerful figures of his age, including Spain’s King Philip II, whose support enabled Victoria to study and work in Rome. A contemporary of one of his native region’s most revered citizens, Saint Teresa of Ávila, Victoria was an ordained priest whose vocation dominated his compositional output. Unmistakably influenced by the music of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, with whom he may have studied in the 1560s, Victoria’s Tenebræ responsories share with Couperin’s Leçons a profoundly personal atmosphere of rumination, invigorated in this performance by Red Letter Consort’s singing.

From the opening bars of ‘Amicus meus osculi me traddit signo,’ it was apparent that Humphries’s leadership yielded ensemble singing that honored the storied English traditions that shaped his musical constitution. Reminiscences of Coventry and Salisbury resounded in Red Letter Consort’s singing, but their delivery of Victoria’s music was distinguished by singular expressive intensity. The voices intertwined captivatingly in ‘Tamquam ad latronem,’ emphasizing the ingenuity of the composer’s part writing without distorting the piece’s meticulously-crafted polyphonic architecture. Foretokens of Passion music by Buxtehude and Bach emerged in the Consort’s phrasing of ‘Sepulto Domino, signatum est monumentum,’ in which the singers’ individual sounds were melded into a resilient thread by which the words were bound with evocative simplicity, the cathartic power of Victoria’s tone painting vividly projected to the listeners.

Unlike his Spanish colleague Victoria, the English composer Thomas Tallis is a towering figure in Renaissance music without a substantial biographical foundation. A defining presence in English liturgical composition throughout the reigns of the last four Tudor monarchs, Tallis gave England a body of work to rival the legacies of Continental composers, artfully tailoring his musical language first to the Catholic conservatism of Mary I and then to the Protestant progressivism of Elizabeth I without compromising the integrity of his work. Under Elizabeth’s aegis, Tallis and his pupil William Byrd were awarded exclusive rights to publish their works, an arrangement with few precedents that secured the survival of much of Tallis’s music. Whereas undisputed historical evidence creates a comprehensive portrait of Victoria, vestiges of Tallis’s character and experiences are primarily found in his music, in which a fascinating, sometimes melancholic, and often astonishingly modern voice is heard.

Red Letter Consort chose as the final selection for their Holy Week concert the first part of Tallis’s setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah the Prophet. Dating from the 1560s, during Elizabeth I’s first decade on the throne, the work utilizes the same text employed in Couperin’s Leçons. Tallis’s manner of writing for the voices engenders sonic textures that are at once stark and lavish, each part requiring stamina, sensitivity, and security across a broad range. Guided by Humphries’s intuitive pacing, Red Letter Consort’s voices excelled at meeting Tallis’s demands, enunciating each line of Jeremiah’s elegiac text with stirring immediacy.

Despite the Consort’s relative newness, cooperation among the singers was faultless, the thoroughness of their preparation audible in each phrase of their singing. Fleeting moments of imperfect balance in the Victoria motets were largely absent from the Tallis. In this music, the Consort achieved an ethos that was appropriately solemn but movingly hopeful. Euphoniously limning the essence of Holy Week’s message of salvation through sacrifice with singing in which diligent rehearsal actuated expressive spontaneity, Humphries and Red Letter Consort reawakened in the hallowed space of St. John’s the quest for spiritual enlightenment that effected the church’s prominence in the annals of American history. Patrick Henry’s voice roused a revolution: the voices of Red Letter Consort roused music of centuries past with revolutionary eloquence.