Sunday, June 19, 2011

BEMF: The Wednesday Report

What with the humidity ranging around 70%, it was an ideal week at Boston Early Music Festival to explore the more microtonal aspects of baroque and early music. In between re-tunings, here's what we got up to:

Wednesday, Recitar Cantando: Elizabeth Baber, soprano, and Charles Weaver, theorbo, at The College Club. My notes for this concert have gone missing but I can tell you Ms Baber has a lovely voice and handled the material -- sacred and secular pieces from Caccini, Strozzi, Kapsberger, Peri, Monteverdi -- with sensitivity and attention to detail, while Mr Weaver's accompaniment was expert even in the face of increasingly wonky strings. Anyway this is the first time I've dropped bills into a theorbo case at the end of a gig, and how cool is that.

Wednesday night, Niobe, Regina di Tebe.  The object of the powers that be at BEMF is to present, in as HIP a way as possible, baroque operas that are little-known at best and preferably unknown and forgotten. One suspects they're never happier than when there's an "Indiana Jones and the Lost Opera of the Kapellmeister of X" element involved.  Agostino Steffani's Niobe falls into the former category -- lesser-known (a lot) but not completely unknown, and BEMF's production comes on the heels of another that's been tooling around Europe for the past few seasons. 

I'll save the remarks on Steffani's place in music history for the professionals.  The notes say the story is based on Ovid, which it surely is, but with enough material added from various other sources to occupy four hours on the stage, cuts included.  In other words, baroque subplots galore. Mostly this translates into gigs for countertenors, and BEMF managed to round up some pretty good ones, first and foremost Philippe Jaroussky for the role of Niobe's husband Anfione, King of Thebes.  Jaroussky's is not a clarion voice, nor especially space-filling -- the Cutler Majestic Theater seemed about as large a room as he would want to sing in, and even then some of his low notes got lost in space (at least where I was sitting) -- but it is, as countertenor voices go, absolutely sweet, and Anfione's "music of the spheres" aria in Jaroussky's hands was one of those gripping, breath-taking, time-stopper arias we tend to look for in operas of this period.

Amanda Forsythe, as the Theban Queen not long on judgement when it comes to appropriate bragging rights, conveyed very well the overall nastiness of the character, and her singing I think is never not gorgeous. Hers is a voice that can fill a theater just fine, and she did sound like she was holding back, though I wasn't sure whether this was a matter of pacing (it's a long week), or a technical choice to even out the volume of the singers, or just, again, a question of acoustics.  Anyway she was mean and sang beautifully, got her comeuppance and sang beautifully, and turned to stone, singing beautifully all the while. As mentioned earlier, there was at that point much rejoicing from the bars across the street.

The rest of the cast was uniformly good, except for soprano Yulia Van Doren as Manto, who was outstanding. (She'll be Dorinda in Händel's Orlando at Tanglewood this summer.)  Also outstanding was José Lemos, in the skirt role of Nerea, the nurse who functions as a sort of proto-Despina, and who makes me curious about the tradition (if there is one) of countertenors singing buffa roles. Anyway he was funny, and good with a fan.

The Boston run of Niobe is done, but there are two more performances at the Mahaiwe Theatre in Great Barrington, June 24 & 25, as well as Acis & Galatea, June 26 & 27. (I missed the A & G performance in Boston, but I do know the ovations went on for quite some time as we were hanging out on the steps outside.)

Okay, that covers Wednesday. More adventures to follow, including the Review of the Scone, Properly Contextualized.


  1. As to Mr. Jaroussky, the disappearance of notes surely was a question of acoustics. I saw (and heard ) him several times in Europe.He filled large halls easily without any technical support.

  2. I believe it. The theater in question is not acoustically ideal by any means.