Best of 2010: Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, the Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Opera Production

This is the third year of BEMF’s wonderful new institution of annual chamber opera performances. These not only help us get through the alternate years, when there is no main festival in June, nor any full opera production, they set a standard for authenticity and for the imaginative recreation of centuries-old practices and aesthetics in such a way that an audience of cultivated non-experts can enjoy the performance and walk away exhilarated. This was certainly the mood in late November last year, when BEMF turned to Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. None of the other chamber operas produced so far is particularly obscure — not John Blow’s Venus and Adonis, nor Charpentier’s Actéon, nor Handel’s Acis and Galatea. On the contrary, they are central to the history of the genre, and they are performed, although not very often. This year’s offering, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, is the most popular pre-Mozart opera of all. It fills the needs of conservatories, young sopranos or mezzos, as well as ageing divas, who wish to apply their wisdom to the tragic Queen of Carthage. We have reviewed a number of modest, but very successful productions in the Review over the past year or so.

Beowulf, sung and recited by Benjamin Bagby at Tanglewood

Benjamin Bagby has been performing Beowulf now for twenty years, usually to sold-out houses, especially in New York City. (I’ve tried and failed to get tickets more than once.) Audiences and critics rave about Bagby’s ability to create a spellbinding effect in his recitation/singing over the hour and forty minutes of its duration — all in what is practically a foreign language, even if most people call it Old English. With brilliant success, Bagby has transformed what was once the bane of American English majors — all too long ago: that last of those required to address the older stages of our language are hoary of head and halting in gait — into a thrilling entertainment full of color and expression. It is as if the early music movement had finally spawned their Stokowski. The effect is so essentially baroque. What Lear or Hamlet has speech, declamation, and singing in his dramatic quiver? In this way Bagby has bridged the language gap and made it possible for modern audiences to share something like the enjoyment a medieval scop’s audience would have experienced in a bardic performance. Of course today we sit decorously in Seiji Ozawa Hall or some place like it, and there is no mead or beer at hand. On the rare occasion that a line comes out as comprehensible modern English, we laugh. Our eyes flit back and forth to and from the supertitles…

Elephants Begone! – Bach’s Cello Suites Deconstructed and Reconstructed – Pieter Wispelwey at Tanglewood

I was of divided mind. Cellist, Pieter Wispelwey From the familiar opening measures of Bach’s great set of cello suites, any resemblance to performances I had previously heard (or could imagine from the score), any accordance with Baroque performance practice I had studied, and any sense of veneration to “The Bach Suite As Such” had been thoroughly dashed. I listened with jaw-dropping surprise at Wispelwey’s granular, hyper-rhetorical phrasing – now playful, now expressionistic, now rapturous, now diffident, always light-on-the-bow – and felt completely alienated by a radical departure from a performance tradition I had loved. Where were Janos Starker’s muscles? Where was the grunting and spiritually ennobling midwifery of Pablo Casals whose hulking, devotional approach attested to the phenomenon, as G. M. Hopkins said, “sheer plod makes plough down sillion shine”?

Ödön von Horváth’s Judgment Day, at Bard College’s Summerscape

In the opening scene of Ödön von Horváth’s Judgment Day, Frau Leimgruber, bitingly played by Kelly McAndrew, gives us (and the travelling salesman who walks in) an earful about the nice, hard-working stationmaster, Herr Hudetz. In this remote small town, Herr Hudetz has to do everything that needs to be done at the station. He sells tickets, collects packages, changes the signals, etc., etc. — all for low pay. However, he does get a house by the station, which affords his jealous wife a view of everything that goes on there. Frau Hudetz, fourteen years older than her husband, managed to entrap him into marriage. Now, as her age catches up with her, she is embittered and makes his life miserable any way she can — above all through her jealous rages and her unwillingness to allow him any independence at all. She has stopped even his innocent hours in the local tavern, “The Wild Man.” She and her brother Alfons, the local apothecary, are without a doubt the most unpopular people in town.

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