Sunday, November 21, 2010

Of musical, and medieval, virtuosity

By any standard, Hildegard of Bingen would have been a Renaissance woman - if she'd lived after the Renaissance, that is. But as she died in 1179, there's no handy term to encapsulate her wide range of achievement - although we do know she was quite the medieval player: a powerful abbess and (literal) visionary, Hildegard was also a diplomat, naturalist, artist (her illustration of one of her visions, at right), author, and composer.

It's that last vocation that excites the most interest in her today - Hildegard left behind one of the largest repertoires of any medieval composer. And central to her achievement is Ordo Virtutum (Play of the Virtues) a morality play which she set to music - more than four centuries before Orfeo was even a gleam in Monteverdi's eye.

Which makes Ordo Virtutum quite the statistical outlier, if you will - and as there people who like to insist that it counts as the "first opera," I was eager to check out a rare performance by Cappella Clausura, which took place last weekend at the First Lutheran Church in Back Bay. I didn't know quite what to expect, but left consistently impressed by the musical artistry and commitment of the group, if not always by the concept they had chosen for this particular production.

Ordo Virtutum is a meditation on a soul's temptation by (and redemption from) Old Scratch himself - and Cappella Clausura's "hook" was a cute, but not particularly convincing, updating of the text from one millennium to the next.  Here the "Soul" - or "Anima" - was a fresh-faced college grad (Laura Betinis) on the verge of devoting herself to filthy lucre, at some satanic corporation run by woman-of-the-world Margaret Raines (both at left), even though her virtuous BFFs (with names like Faith, Hope and . . . "Fear of God"?) were all warning her against it. The press materials worked this concept up into quite the social statement, but in practice it amounted to contemporary clothing on the singers and not a whole lot more - other than a sweet, but slightly-amusing "OMG, Anima - no you didn't!" attitude from the sorority of "virtues" which was slightly at odds with the inhuman purity of the music.

But said music proved the show's (if not Anima's) true savior, for if Cappella Clausura didn't dramatize Hildegard's vision convincingly, they nevertheless sang it compellingly, and with a confidence that comes only from long and deep commitment.  (But you can tell from their name alone this kind of thing is their specialty.)  Ordo Virtutum is a challenge partly because medieval notation (via neumes) leaves out any details of harmony or instrumentation (and only hints at rhythm).  But adapter/conductor Amelia LeClair attacked this gap with knowledgeable insight, and came up with a minimal, but effective, accompaniment of medieval harp, hurdy-gurdy, and veille (a medieval fiddle). Betinis sang with beautifully pure tone, and while the chorus of virtues was a bit uneven in spots, their diction was always impeccable, and there were at least two fine solos, from Kimberly Sizer and Daniela Tosic, as well as a ringing one from Leah Hungerford.

Still, this wasn't enough to sell me on Ordo Virtutum as "the first opera;" it simply lacks enough staged conflict to qualify as a drama - as we never see Anima really struggle with her seducer (she simply changes her mind and returns to the Virtues); it's really a kind of liturgical text set to music.  Although a little more old-fashioned acting from the leads could have nevertheless helped put the show over, as the music is inevitably repetitive - though lovely - over its hour-or-so length.  And while I liked Margaret Raines's what-the-hell attitude, she seemed a rather unmotivated Devil - there were only a few moments when we saw anything like a seductive vibe float between her and her supposed prey.  And when you consider that Hildegard hasn't written Old Scratch even a scrap of melody (symbolically, it's a spoken role), you do feel that somehow, somebody onstage should give the Devil his (or her) due.

No comments:

Post a Comment