Intermezzo: Le Poeme Harmonique at Miller Theater, September 14

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Susan Brodie, Toi Toi Toi

By Susan Brodie: Toi Toi Toi!

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Baroque music performed by candlelight sounds better than it looks: that is, the idea is more imaginative than practical, and the musical experience is likely to be more alluring than the visual. Case in point: when I saw Cavalli’s Egisto at the Opéra Comique in Paris last January, I wanted to run down from my perch in the front row of the third balcony seat and demand of Vincent Dumestre exactly what he was thinking, staging an opera in a 1250-seat house and lighting the stage only with candles? Even through good opera glasses I struggled to see what was going on in the murk, and the effort distracted me from the music. Frustrated, and despite long familiarity with and fondness for 17th century Italian monody, I experienced the staging as static, the music as motonous, attenuated.  Perhaps I have been ruined by too much Wagner, or too much over-the-top regietheater.

But this theatrical style distinguishes Le Poème Harmonique from many other French baroque ensembles: a dream-like atmosphere designed to draw the listener into an intimate and visceral experience of the music. And in a smaller space, like the Miller Theater at Columbia University, it was quite successful. The formula devised by Dumestre and stage director Benjamin Lazar marries rigorous and fluent historically informed musical performances with stylized lyrical interpretation. Dim lighting, too dark for consulting printed texts, quieted the viewer’s mind and focused attention on the stage. The instrumentalists wore concert-casual black shirts and pants; the singers–the men in black, with the soprano in a simple modern concert gown–slipped onstage as though meeting a lover, and waved their hands about in movements apparently based on textbook baroque gestures. It took some getting used to but became mesmerizing after listeners adjusted to the scale, the musical language of the carefully curated playlist, and the compelling expressiveness of the singers.

“Venezia dalle calli ai palazzi” compiled seventeenth century songs and instrumental variations evoking Venice at Carnevale, with moods ranging from melancholy to festive, with despair, madness, and some very low humor thrown in. Most of the pieces utilized variations on a repeated bass pattern and called for plenty of improvisation, which the players negotiated like old jazz hands. The period instrumental ensemble–five string players plus a percussionist–created a rich wash of sound, flavored by the lirone and with much strumming and plucking of the bowed instruments. The wonderful male singers, tenors Jan Van Elsacker and Serge Goubloud and bass Geoffroy Buffiere, had distinctive vocal and stage personalities yet blended beautifully, especially as the accompanying trio in Monteverdi’s Lamento della ninfa. Soprano Claire Lefilliatre, whose smoky, vibratoless sound reminded me uncannily of the late Monserrat Figuerras, gave impassioned renditions of monody and turned merry and flirtatious for the livelier numbers. The chemistry among the singers was irresistible.

This particular staging style remains problematic for me:  based on the two performances by this group that I’ve seen, it’s a post-modern aesthetic whose energy in performance is sometimes at odds with the music. At the same time the performances are undeniably compelling, and I’m eager to see them in other repertoire.

Date posted: September 18, 2012

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