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San Francisco Chronicle Review: ‘Venere, Amore, e Ragione’

This review by Joshua Kosman was published in the San Francisco Chronicle on April 7, 2009.

The thing about love, as most people learn sooner or later, is that it stubbornly refuses to be guided by the precepts of logic and rationality. A pretty smile, an enticing gaze, some shapely body part or other, and boom – there goes common sense.

Not so in “Venere, Amore e Ragione” (“Venus, Cupid and Reason”), the comely little musical entertainment presented over the weekend by the early-music ensemble Magnificat. In Alessandro Scarlatti’s serenata, probably first performed in Rome in 1706, Cupid throws off his blindfold, and amid great rejoicing by the pastoral crowds, embraces Reason as his mentor.

Uh-huh. And you thought 19th century operas were unrealistic.

The charms of this work, scored for three singers in the title roles and a complement of six instrumentalists, are slight but genuine. Compared with composers writing even 10 or 20 years later, Scarlatti works on a compact scale, writing terse little arias that make their points and hurry away again.

Paradoxically, perhaps, his music is better appreciated in full-length operas, where these gemlike miniatures acquire dramatic heft through sheer accumulation. In a modest pastoral like “Venere, Amore e Ragione” – which includes scarcely an hour’s worth of music – a listener can sup contentedly enough on musical canapes while waiting in vain for a meatier dish.

Still, there is no denying the vigor, stylishness and sheer beauty of Scarlatti’s score, which moves briskly through its set pieces and culminates, like some Baroque version of “Der Rosenkavalier,” with a lushly scored trio for the three female voices. There’s also a surprise ending (musical, not textual) to rival anything concocted by O. Henry.

Saturday’s performance at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Berkeley brought out these appealing qualities without alleviating the essential modesty of the undertaking. The instrumental playing, led from the harpsichord by Hanneke van Proosdij, was lively and evocative, with occasional bursts of recorder to leaven the string textures.

The vocal casting was evidently done in accordance with a principle whereby only singers named Jennifer need apply. Among these, soprano Jennifer Ellis Kampani was the standout, singing the role of Cupid with a bright, sweeping tone and effortlessly negotiating the sometimes daunting thickets of coloratura writing in the part. One aria, “D’amor l’accesa face” (“The burning torch of love”), proved to be the dramatic climax of the evening, a bravura showpiece that Ellis Kampani brought home superbly.

Soprano Jennifer Paulino made a cool, sweet-toned but rather impassive Venus. Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Lane’s recessive performance as Reason made that luminary’s ultimate triumph seem all the more implausible.

E-mail Joshua Kosman at jkosman@sfchronicle.com.

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