in: Reviews

January 4, 2010

New Year Celebrated with Panache in Two Comic Operas from Boston Baroque

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Boston Baroque rang in the new year (and decade) at Sanders Theatre with a delicious program combining pieces from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s childhood and maturity and a comic intermezzo by Mozart’s slightly older contemporary, Domenico Cimarosa. One feature of the concert that this listener particularly appreciated was the brief but valuable program notes given orally by Boston Baroque’s director, Martin Pearlman, before each piece. One suspects that a minority of audience members take the trouble to read printed notes, and this was a program that was still more enjoyable with a bit of background. Mr. Pearlman’s remarks were edifying, entertaining, and concise, never dry or longwinded.

Bastien und Bastienne, a one-act opera commissioned by the famous Viennese physician and “magnetist,” Anton Mesmer, was a creation of the 12-year-old Mozart; if the lovely melodies sometimes seem a bit generic, one still marvels at his confident handling of both the orchestral and vocal writing. By a curious coincidence, the opening melody of Mozart’s overture is almost identical to that of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, the Eroica. However, since it is all but certain that Beethoven never heard Bastien und Bastienne (whose first substantiated performance didn’t occur until 1890), this must be accounted one of the stranger quirks of music history. Mozart’s opera was in fact a parody of an earlier one-act work by the philosopher and composer Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Le devin du village (The Village Soothsayer), a work of uneven quality but enormous popularity from 1752 on; among other things, it was performed at the wedding of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

Finding not even a synopsis of Bastien und Bastienne in the program, I was rather relieved to learn that Boston Baroque would be using an English translation by one of its former concertmasters, Daniel Stepner, which turned out to be charming. The consistently clear diction of the three singers was of course also helpful. Kristen Watson, as the shepherdess Bastienne, entered first, singing her lament with plangent beauty but soon enough switching without warning into anger and frustration, then back again. Ms. Watson quite convincingly portrayed the late-adolescent melodrama of a girl in love for the first time who feels spurned. When David Kravitz enters as the self-styled magician Colas, Bastienne loses no time consulting him on how to recover the affections of the shepherd Bastien, her beloved. With Mr. Kravitz’s resonant and authoritative tone, Colas certainly sounds the voice of experience when he advises Bastienne to pretend to be indifferent to Bastien and even intimate that she might have another beau; yet his pompous gestures and fatuous manner make us wonder how wise he actually is: a fine example of a singer‘s voice and deportment acting at deliberate cross-purposes with each other. Shortly thereafter, Bastien makes his first appearance. Lawrence Jones very effectively conveys the character’s utter sincerity — even naïveté — with sunny face and pure tone. When Colas informs Bastien that Bastienne has left him behind, one feels momentary sympathy for Bastien (even in this comic context) as his face clouds over with confusion and dismay. When he asks Colas for help regaining his beloved, the quack magician seizes the opportunity to do some conjuring. Here Mr. Kravitz made the most of his showstopper comic aria, consisting largely of rhyming nonsensical incantations mixed with familiar (and almost completely irrelevant) Latin phrases. Having completed his “spell,” Colas leaves the scene to the two lovers. They each employ his “reverse psychology” techniques, openly spelling out their plans to each other while pretending indifference, to the accompaniment of contrasted dance music. Only when it goes to the limit (Bastien’s threatened suicide) do the pair begin to see through each other’s pretense and start to reaffirm their mutual love. Though the shepherd and shepherdess have rediscovered their love by their own devices, the comic opera requires that Colas reappear in order to claim that the happy outcome is entirely due to his “great, mysterious magic.” The entire cast of three sings a final joyful trio, and Bastien und Bastienne comes to a mirthful conclusion.

Mozart wrote his Symphony No. 40 in G minor 20 years and exactly 500 compositions later. The above opera is K. 50, and the symphony is K. 550. Amazingly, this was the first time Boston Baroque had performed this famous symphony. Mr. Pearlman said in an earlier article, “Even though it’s in a minor key, it’s still light,” and his interpretation was notable for the emphasis of its lighter aspects. Interestingly, Mr. Pearlman chose to use the earlier orchestration of the piece which does not include clarinets; coupled with the use of period instruments, this does lighten the weight of the overall texture, lending it sprightliness and heightened clarity even at very brisk tempi. One could hear what the director had mentioned in his remarks about “unexpected things happening below the surface.” Still, the dark side of the piece remained ever present with its turbulent rhythms and harmonies, emphatic dissonances and sudden, extreme dynamic contrasts. The piece and its performance were an intriguing juxtaposition of the baroque and the romantic. The first movement development displays some of Mozart’s finest polyphony. The beautifully expressive second movement showcased arched phrases large and small. The minuet’s trio gave the winds their moment to dominate, instead of fill out chords or reinforce the strings, and the wind players fully capitalized on their opportunity. The feverish finale impressively displayed the finely honed ensemble of upper strings, lower strings, winds, and the full orchestra. With playing this fine, one was truly grateful that all repeats were observed throughout the symphony.

The program closed with another one-act opera (or “intermezzo”) by Mozart’s contemporary, Domenico Cimarosa. Il maestro di cappella (The Music Director) portrayed the stock character (at least nowadays) of the pompous conductor who is his own greatest admirer. One should not expect music of any profundity here, but as a comic scena, it rates high. At the time he wrote it, Cimarosa was working at the Russian court of Catherine the Great. It was created at a time of economic difficulties (making it a particularly apt choice for the present day!) and features only a single singer who impersonates the supercilious maestro. This performance utilized a solid English translation by the performer, David Kravitz. The singer had a field day, imitating the various instruments to “instruct” them as well as attempting to conduct, not exactly in tandem with Mr. Pearlman. When he said quite early on, “I’m of the old school, I’m not a diva,” we could be confident that the opposite was true. Unlike the role of Colas, here both Mr. Kravitz’s voice and deportment were thoroughly self-important, most definitely working in concert, to hilarious effect. Naturally, the orchestra players loathed him and did all they could to provoke him, coming in at every possible wrong place. One of the biggest laughs the maestro got came when he voiced his opinion: “I’ve a strong suspicion there’s another conductor.” Ultimately, the musicians must have realized that the only way to be finished with this “director” was to comply with his directions. When they started following all his cues and playing in the manner he had vocally indicated, he was enraptured. Here we had definite echoes of Colas: “The orchestra sounds wonderful when they play together, and it’s all because of me!” He then indicated it was time to rehearse something more modern and instructed them to turn the page (which they did in noisy unison). However, when he started indicating new combinations of instruments, the concertmaster pointedly looked at her watch. At last, the maestro realized his power was not absolute (a prefiguring of unionized orchestras?), and compromised, conducting one last jolly selection to bring another piece to a jovial conclusion. Boston Baroque celebrated the new year with style, panache, and just plain fun.

Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. Currently, he sings in the choir of Trinity Church and accompanies the Boston Choral Ensemble under Miguel Felipe.

2 Comments

  1. This helped to explain a lot and enhanced my understanding of what was taking place on the stage. thanks

    Comment by marshall goldman — January 5, 2010 at 6:02 pm

  2. Sometimes, one wonders if the reviewer was even at the same concert.
    This reviewer definitely was (in fact, he was sitting next to me) – and took the same pleasure I did – but he explained it better.

    Comment by Lois Lampson — January 7, 2010 at 10:58 am

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