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SFCV Review of Il Pastor Fido Concert

This review by Joseph Sargent appeared in the San Francisco Classical Voice on September 30, 2005.

Giovan Battista Guarini’s play Il Pastor Fido (The Faithful Shepherd) was a failure as drama but proved extraordinarily successful as literature. The tragicomic 17th-century play of pastoral love, lust and loss was first published in 1590. No other source of lyrical texts surpassed it in popularity among Italian composers of the time.

Il Pastor Fido evidently holds a similar appeal for Magnificat, which compiled a selection of solo and polyphonic pieces from the play for its opening concert of the 2005-2006 season, organized into a narrative structure that mimics the play’s plot. Under the guidance of artistic director/violoncellist Warren Stewart, a consort of five vocalists and three instrumentalists tackled this repertoire Friday at Palo Alto’s First Lutheran Church with abandon, delivering an animated performance that represented a strong debut for the ensemble’s new season.

Any effective performance of Italian madrigals ought to lavish great attention on the tell-tale aspects of the genre: frequent emotional shifts in the text, an innate sense of theatricality, and distinctive “text paintings” in which musical devices accentuate the literal meaning of individual words. Magnificat proved to be adept interpreters in this regard, their approach focused on conveying the dramatic as well as musical power of these settings.

An effective match

This combination of music and drama paid off with Tarquinio Merula’s “Oimè, son morta!” (O, I’m dead), a struggle between “wanton nymph” Corisca and the hunter Satiro. Soprano Jennifer Ellis and bass Peter Becker were a delightfully combative pair of foes, their virtuosic vocal displays and captivating affective gestures a highlight of the evening. Ellis’ beguiling voice was pure and lithe with a delicate vibrato, perfect for this repertoire. Becker had a sparkling presence here and throughout the evening with his gorgeous tone, impeccable skill in ornamentation and winning theatricality.

Among the other soloists, tenor Dan Hutchings deployed his gentle, polished voice to good effect in Sigismondo d’India’s “Cruda Amarilli” (Cruel Amaryllis), though he might have offered more passionate expression (both physical and vocal) to the text’s heart-wrenching sentiments. Tenor Paul Elliott displayed a somewhat darker tone in a series of d’India songs, conveying a somber quality that, while matching the affective nature of the texts, sometimes seemed heavy-handed. He and Hutchings were well-matched, however, in their Alessandro Grandi duet “Udite lagrimosi” (Hear, weeping), their voices distinctive in alternating phrases yet merging seamlessly at several points to create a satisfying whole.

Magnificat displayed impressive command in the ensemble madrigals, their faultless intonation and carefully matched phrasing adding greatly to this music’s effectiveness. Particularly successful was the closing madrigal set, d’India’s Se tu, Silvio crudel, mi saettasti (When you, cruel Silvio, shot me). Following an agile opening flourish from soprano Laura Heimes, the ensemble depicted Silvio’s tragic accidental wounding of his beloved Dorinda with virtuoso panache, effortlessly moving between fugal and homophonic lines and poring over the many expressive word paintings with great care. Also impressive was Claudio Monteverdi’s masterly “Ah dolente partita” (Oh, painful separation), in which the character Mirtillo agonizes over the absence of his beloved Amaryllis. Ellis and Heimes gave haunting expression to the piece’s opening dissonances and the ensemble followed with passionate cries of anguish, supplemented by powerful dynamic swells.

Love’s labors

In Giovanni Ghizzolo’s Il Gioco della Cieca (The game of Blind Man’s Bluff), Heimes displayed a bright, dulcet sound as Amaryllis, tangling with Mirtillo in a game in which the participants’ furtive movements symbolize the blindness of love. Heimes also combined with Ellis and Becker for several delightful moments as the Nymph’s Chorus, their gleeful passages commenting wryly on the characters’ machinations.

A couple of quibbles, however. Balance was a nagging issue at several points in the program, particularly in the classic Monteverdi setting of “Cruda Amarilli,” with Elliott in particular tending to overpower his comrades. And some of Magnificat’s performers seem generally more comfortable in the madrigal idiom than others — dramatic expression was occasionally unequal and ornamental lines were delivered in varying degrees of fluency, for instance.

The two continuo performers, theorbist David Tayler and harpsichordist Hanneke van Proosdij, masterfully accompanied the vocal consort and also commanded their own moments in the spotlight. Tayler’s gentle grace and technical polish imbued a pavan of Alfonso Ferrabosco II with quiet emotion, while Proosdij added graceful lyricism and flawless passagework to a canzona by Merula and a toccata of Giovanni Picchi.

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