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San Francisco Classical Voice Review: Funny, Even in Translation

This review by Thomas Busse was published in San Francisco Classical Voice on April 15, 2008.

The crack early-music ensemble Magnificat attempted the difficult challenge of performing a Baroque comic opera in concert over the weekend. The form is unlike serious opera or slighter genres such as intermezzos or serenatas, which readily lend themselves to unstaged presentation. Comic opera, with its typically recitative-heavy, slighter music, depends on stage action, comic timing, and the conveyance of complicated and farcical plots, much of which gets lost by singers in dress clothes standing in place.

I am happy to report that Magnificat, under Warren Stewart’s direction, pulled off the challenge magnificently on Saturday in Berkeley’s St. Mark’s Episcopal Church.

The evening’s dusted-off museum piece was Alessandro Stradella’s penultimate stage work, Il Trespolo Tutore, a charming work from 1679, for which modern performing material was prepared by Michael Burden for performance at New College, Oxford, in 2004, with translations of the recitatives by Simon Dees and of the arias by Dorothy Manly.

The entire era of 17th-century opera is perhaps the largest unexplored territory in both modern performance and modern musicology. Unlike in later time periods, the delineation between aria and recitative was much less strict — “aria” was truer to its original meaning of “song” than were the extravagant da capo productions of, say, Handel. The recitatives tended to be more tuneful, yet they were built on functional harmony much more than the borderline-repertory works we hear now and then from Monteverdi and Cavalli.

Challenge of Performing in a Different Language

Magnificat’s decision to perform the bulk of the opera in English translation raises interesting musical questions. Although performing opera in translation is a venerable (if increasingly endangered) tradition in staged performance, doing so in a concert version loses its immediacy, since audiences can be given adequate program books. It took me some time to get acquainted with Magnificat’s Americanized diction for this music, simply because almost all the Baroque recitative we typically hear is by Handel, and sung with British diction. American r’s just sound wrong in this music, since the funny and sometimes tortured singing translation relied on witticisms only conceivable by a Brit. Occasionally, when the singers shifted gears to Italian, they brought their American r’s with them. Furthermore, proscenium theaters tend to dampen music, but Magnificat’s venues are more-resonant churches, where even good diction (which it was here) tends to get muddled. More important is the slight adjustment also given to the music, ostensibly composed to the cadence of a libretto’s language. Clever and effective singing translations of opera are available, but all of them cheat the original music out of something. The case can be made that modern audiences cannot appreciate subtlety of word usage from 300 years ago, but, last I heard, Shakespeare is still going strong. With Magnificat, I doubt that much sacrifice was made, and the singers offered ample visual entertainment to eyes freed from the printed page. My overall impression of Magnificat’s performance was of polish. Concert opera must confront many tempo changes, transitions, stupid and wobbly singers, instrumentalists unfamiliar with recitative, sit-downs and stand-ups, and relentless variations in continuo instrumentation. All these things make it hard to achieve a performance so refined as this one was, one marked throughout by collaborative, unconducted leadership from the continuo team. I ascribe the results to the intelligence of Magnificat’s singers and the sensitivity to and experience with vocal music by Stewart and the rest of the (small) band, as well as adequate rehearsal time. Special mention should be made of the marathon performance of harpsichordist Katherine Heater, who must be one of the best continuo players around. All the singers were in top form, even in this allergy season. Bass Peter Becker, who I felt was less successful in Magnificat’s last sacred concert, sounded ideal in this comic idiom. He also put out an impressive falsetto in a deliciously funny letter-writing scene. Brazilian countertenor José Lemos was a welcome addition to Magnificat’s core; I could see him becoming a successful stage actor. Soprano Catherine Webster’s more fluttery tone is less to my taste, but beloved by the audience. I kept waiting for soprano Laura Heimes to come in, as her voice is perfect for this music, but almost too pretty for her role.

Skirting the Question of Gender

Unique to early opera is the skirt role. Stradella composed the part of an elderly nursemaid for the ugliest voice type, which of course is the tenor by Baroque standards, sung here by Paul Elliott. Costuming covers up this type of gender bending in staged productions, but I spent quite a few minutes confused. At one point in the opera, the maid is led to believe the ripe damsel wants to marry her, and all was plotted toward a lesbian wedding. As it turns out, the damsel ends up with the charming bisexual Ciro (did the original libretto actually use this word?), sung excellently as always by Jennifer Ellis in a pants role. So two women ended up together, anyway. Very Berkeley. I do not understand why performances of this Baroque repertory are left to cash-strapped chamber ensembles rather than regional opera companies. Stradella’s instrumentation as realized by Magnificat is slight — two violins, cello, harpsichord, and theorbo (I would have added a bass violone) — and would come as a financial relief for any one of perhaps 15 regional Bay Area opera troupes and even Mozart-in-a-Minute school programs. Instead, the upcoming seasons of four local companies include a Tosca, a Madama Butterfly, an Aida, and a Flying Dutchman, all with fewer than 30 players in the pit. Yet all but one lack a proper chamber work in their lineup. Do the best opera performances really have to come from ensembles that are not opera organizations at all?

Thomas Busse, www.tbusse.com, is a professional tenor.

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