At its center Christmas is the simplest of celebrations. Its god is created not in a magnificence, but in poverty attended by animals. Except you become as a little child…. I am thinking now of three powerful and simple beauties I have heard this Yuletide, full of integrity and without dilution. The first was the marvelous performance given by Anne Azema in the Boston Camerata’s Medieval Christmas at the Union College Chapel. Like all great singing, hers comes at you directly, no mediation, no hesitation. Her sound, her knowledge, even her appearance, are all part of one thing, and that thing is honest. Like all great artists she makes you know that her voice is the right instrument for the music. She sings an old cantiga with as much passion as another kind of soprano might sing Norma. An update of the Camerata’s first medieval Christmas program, this one was sparely accompanied, most often unaccompanied. The chant and monophonic songs held full sway. They were sung with a sharp and soaring energy which was always interesting, often riveting. This repertoire in a performance like this easily held the attention of a full house for over two hours. This was a performance of early music which was straight out, in no way manufactured. The highest compliment I can give it is that it was simple. And the model for this was the singing of Anne Azema.
Hubbard Hall is a space which seems to fit its performers ideally. No pretension, no million dollar sets, and a willingness to use local actors if they are good enough. Every show I have seen there has gained a directness and an honesty from this space. Director Kevin McGuire’s Merrily We Roll Along, performed by the Theatre Company at Hubbard Hall, was clearly articulated. The artificiality of the musical itself was not entirely overcome, but there was a clear way through the episodic book. I can’t say it seemed like great Sondheim. It sounded like Sondheim, but it lurched and iterated its fundamental points all too often.
The very short apotheosis at the end of Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” at Hubbard Hall made me think of confluences — the building, the performers, the audience. All of these were here in a gentle and honest synch. It was the most evenly cast opera I have heard in this venue. The staging was honest. The two singers in the title roles were convincing in the simplest way. They looked right, and they sounded right. In the dream sequence, which no staging can match, director Dianna Heldman brought to me a naturalness which was moving in its humility and acceptance of the place in which it was performed. The old hall itself seemed an ideal house for this reality. Nothing which Alexina Jones and Kara Cornell did as Gretel and Hansel was prolix. There was no fake childishness. Humperdinck could be said to have produced an adult’s version of what childhood is- simple tunes, good things to eat, etc. I suppose when compared to “The Magic Flute”, an opera which really is childlike, this is true. But this dead-honest production and its raptly attentive audience in the golden light of the hall made it seem a miracle. There were no weak links on stage, and there were no false steps in the staging. It was great.
Kara Cornell, who sang and acted such a brilliant Carmen at Hubbard Hall last summer, and I recently shared a pleasant Australian blend at the Wine Bar on Lark in Albany, where we reminisced about Carmen—actually Peter Brook’s La Tragédie de Carmen, and talked about next summer’s production, Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, in which, as Hansel, she will make a total about face from the dangerous gypsy. Considering Kara’s vivid and very funny Cherubino in the Capital Opera’s Nozze di Figaro last summer, she should be equally successful as the pre-pubescent wood-cutter’s boy. Knowing stage director Dianna Heidman’s sophistication and originality, I can foresee that Hansel and Gretel will go well beyond the usual family entertainment.
Last August, tipped off by friends of the always-remarkable Richard Giarusso, I ventured up to Cambridge, New York, to hear him conduct Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte at Hubbard Hall, a nineteenth-century “opera house,” which has seen many vicissitudes, but is now flourishing as a community arts and performance center, thanks to the enthusiasm of its local supporters. It was also the inauguration of a new institution, the Hubbard Hall Opera Company, the brainchild of Alexina Jones. The performance was a delight because of the quality of the young, solidly trained voices, the imaginative use of the hall as a three-dimensional performance space, and the lively acting of an intelligently directed cast, who wanted nothing better than to bring Da Ponte’s human comedy and Mozart’s music to life.