Is it opera? or does it sound like opera because Rossini wrote it? These two questions plagued me during the Sunday afternoon’s performance. Under the direction of Betsy Burleigh, Chorus pro Musica presented a rare performance of Gioachino Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle (previewed in detail by BMInt staff here) in the sanctuary of Boston’s Old South Church on Sunday, March 20.
Rossini’s work is surprisingly demanding: a large ensemble for the work (CpM’s numbers roughly quadruple the ensemble the work was written for), some detailed passages became obfuscated in the nave of Old South Church. But Rossini’s writing lost none of its color or original intent in Sunday’s performance. This doesn’t sound like high praise, but it certainly is: a subtle Kyrie realized its intense fragility while a brash Gloria seemed to brim with joy; clever fugues (the Cum sancto Spiritu movement, repeated as encore, comes to mind in particular) achieved a unified sound while boldly demarcating individual parts. In short, due to the unflagging diligence of both choir and conductor, the work was performed not as a dull, mezzo-forte march, but with the vivid colors that brought it to life.
An accomplished list of soloists accompanied the choir. As a small ensemble, the soloists (Carol Haber, soprano, Hillary Nicholson, mezzo-soprano, William Hite, tenor, and an ailing Paul Guttry, bass) achieved warmth and intimacy. As soloists, Rossini’s score seems unnecessarily cruel, incorporating grand bel canto arias into the thread of the mass. The operatic intentions of Rossini’s work came to fore especially during these moments. Although a wide vibrato plagued Haber’s performance at times, William Hite’s heroic tenor was of particular note in the work’s Domine Deus aria, and in the closing Agnus Dei, Hillary Nicholson’s large mezzo-soprano voice carried powerfully yet consolingly over the combined forces.
But even after the vocal acrobatics of Rossini’s Messe are behind us, we’re left to contend with the accompaniment: two pianos, one at short stick, one with its lid removed almost continually narrate the drama. Karen Harvey is of particular note here, whose work at keyboard realized the orchestral vision Rossini must have been penning. The pianos’ work in conjunction with the harmonium (here, a 1933 Parisian Mustel orgue expressif lent by BMInt publisher Lee Eiseman). A rarity, the harmonium added an uncanny complexity to the work: at times, eerily reminiscent of the human voice, at times, a poignant nostalgia of the nineteenth century Paris Rossini knew. A middle movement, the Preludio religioso (pendant l’offertoire), displayed the full breadth of the instrument as a solo feature.
It’s a game Rossini almost certainly laid out for us to play: how much of the Petite Mess is a bona fide religious service? how much of it is a pastiche? is it opera or mass? Being befuddled by these questions is part of the inherent tongue-in-cheek of the work, but is also the privilege of a great performance: Chorus pro Musica’s selfless performance of the Petite Messe ultimately achieved the central humor and spirit of Rossini’s work.