Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Song and dance

Last weekend Boston Baroque brought a unique program to Jordan Hall: a combination of works by Lully and Charpentier along with Rameau's Pigmalion (Gérôme's treatment of the myth, at left) an intriguing one-act opera that's about evenly divided between song and dance. Admirably, Boston Baroque attempted to honor the work's structure by mounting a corresponding postmodern ballet right on the stage of Jordan Hall, with the help of the talented Marjorie Folkman, a former Mark Morris dancer. This was a good thing, although perhaps not quite enough of a good thing: Folkman offered variations on a charming solo, but the dance portions of Pigmalion are extensive, and by the end of the evening we felt the work demanded more than Folkman could deliver on her own. Nevertheless, the performance certainly suggested such productions can, and should, work in the modern dance idiom (indeed, in a way the evening was merely a variation of what Morris's group has been doing for years).

But back, briefly, to the Lully and Charpentier. The concert got off to a slow start with an assemblage of short Lully pieces from various operas and comédie-ballets. Selected by Music Director Martin Pearlman, the resulting 'suite' was cohesive enough, but Boston Baroque's orchestra was ever so slightly blurry in its attack (although its tone was subtle and lovely). I'm not sure if this is the result of Pearlman's mildly eccentric conducting style or if there is a certain soft, muted quality he intentionally seeks for reasons of his own (Pearlman, below right, is a man of larger intellectual scope than your average musician), but I worry the orchestra may have been superceded technically by some of the city's other early music avatars.

The chorus was an entirely different story. The concert snapped into luminous shape with Lully's Regina coeli, a soaring soprano trio here delineated with buoyant skill by Roberta Anderson, Gail Abbey and Sabrina Learman. The following Charpentier Mass proved just as compelling, though in a hauntingly introverted mode: this was an exquisitely melancholy contemplation of the central Christian mystery, and the chorus seemed up to both its precise technical demands and its plaintive coloring.

The shift in feeling to the Rameau was less jarring than one might imagine (perhaps due to Pearlman's sensing something of a similar mood in both). And the biggest news of the evening was that the vocal writing in Pigmalion is ravishing, and was here performed superbly. Tenor Lawrence Wiliford - apparently a last-minute replacement - brought a kind of contemporary intensity to the yearning Pygmalion, and displayed impressive power even in his higher register (although the score did at times scrape the very top of his range). More conventional, but no less impressive, was the sparkling Kristen Watson as both "L'Amour" and the mortal competition for "La Statue," while Meredith Hall brought an achingly pure tone to the awakening heart of the sculptor's creation.

The dance "half" of the opera perhaps wasn't quite as compelling, but then Folkman was working under tight constraints: Rameau's dances seem to have been constructed for a group, but Folkman worked largely solo (although against dancer Rob Besserer's Pygmalion factotum) - and there wasn't room for a group on the Jordan Hall anyhow. I felt Folkman's evocation of the Statue's growing awareness was delightful at first (Folkman is still the lively gamine she was in her Mark Morris days), but grew slightly repetitious, when it should both vary in structure and build in emotion. Such criticism is really only a call for the deployment of more resources, however; it would be wonderful to see Boston Baroque attempt such a project at a larger scale in the future.

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