Cappella Clausura opened its season on Saturday evening in Emmanuel Church’s Lindsey Chapel with taut performances of works by Rebecca Clarke and Aaron Copland followed by Elena Ruehr’s Cassandra in the Temples.
The first half alternated songs by Rebecca Clarke with three of Copland’s choral motets. There isn’t an obvious synthesis between these composers, and little explanation was given for this juxtaposition that emphasized the difference in choral traditions between the two. Amelia LeClair led Rebecca Clarke’s works with the ease and flexibility of British partsongs; complex vertical harmonies effortlessly and swiftly shift with the text. “Lover’s Dirge” was written in perhaps the most traditional vein, while other pieces utilized extended tonal palettes that nevertheless maintained the British sensibility of organization. Copland’s motets, in contrast, emphasize strong melodic lines that are supported by carefully constructed melodic and rhythmic structures, not unlike Debussy’s choral works or Poulenc’s settings folk songs (this is unsurprising: Copland wrote these motets early in his career in France while studying under Nadia Boulanger).
Although a choral mainstay, his motets can sometimes feel stodgy or over-reliant on the hypnotic repetitions that pervade the pieces—an imaginative read inventively shaped these motets in a thrilling performance. Clarke was also sensitively portrayed. In particular, her “Ave Maria” disclosed a wonderfully disorienting soundscape that reveled in delicate individual vocal lines, which, although rich and well-realized, were also carefully balanced and precise.Chorus from Shelly’s “Hellas,” set for women’s ensemble, constituted another highlight. Tonally, the work is far more daring, experimenting with unusual harmonic colors; Clausura revealed a staid sensibility inherent the haunting lines with an expert tuning that heightened its resonance beautifully in Lindsey Chapel. Sequences from the Byzantine composer Kassia (c. 810-867)—fluid melodies supported by a rich bass drone—book-ended the first half as homages to the musical traditions of Greece that would follow after intermission.
Cassandra in the Temples represented a fruitful collaboration by composer Elena Ruehr and librettist Gretchen Henderson (previewed by Liane Curtis here). After rebuffing his sexual advances, Cassandra, the daughter of King Priam of Troy, is cursed by Apollo with the ability to foretell the future without ever being believed. During the sack of Troy, she is taken as concubine by Agamemnon, only to be killed by Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. The work takes its title from the various temples in the story: Cassandra’s rejection of Apollo in his temple and her flight to the temple of Athena after the fall of Troy, where she is raped and abducted by the Greeks; in pre-concert comments, composer Elena Ruehr added yet more temples to the mix, noting that she envisioned much of the drama of the opera playing out in the mind of the characters, between the temples of the head. Gretchen Henderson’s libretto, rife with word-play like this can cloy at times, but these double meanings are at the heart of the poetry which explores the fluidity of language and how it relates to psychological state (in a particularly beguiling sixth movement, Apollo’s lyre in resembles the imperative “Lie here!” from Apollo, as well as an accusatory “Liar!” from the chorus). Henderson’s poetry is playful and witty, and in its various antics manages to plumb a startlingly affecting version of Cassandra’s tragedy.
Roomful of Teeth premiered Cassandra almost a year ago by (reviewed here), and Saturday evening’s presentation was the second ever, as well as the first time it has ever been staged. Despite the deeply nuanced music and libretto, this version with staging by LeClair, choreography by DeAnna Pellechia, and costumes by Cheryl Hayden tended towards the disappointingly facile, rushed and crude: coarsely toga-ed singers meandered about the cramped altar missing the subtle ties the opera draws between the past and the present. Ruehr’s complex score also proved challenging, even in this simplified version, stripped of its ethereal diphonic singing and vocal effects. Ensemble pieces sounded in tune, but lacked confident finesse and transparent tone quality. Dramatically, this version had little to offer: singers were either buried in their substantial binders or attentively watching LeClair’s conduct from the pulpit, leaving scant scope for expression. Seemingly under-rehearsed, the sophisticated and complex work might have fared better in a program with a less challenging first half.
Alto Tracy Cowart opened and closed the piece with melismatic lines that were deeply satisfying. Bass Anthony Garza, in the role of Agamemnon, sang with a honeyed confidence that fared well in Lindsey Chapel. Baritone Elijah Blaisdell performed the eighth movement (“Strangled in Truth: belief can be bereaving”) with sensitivity and intelligence that paired well with his thoughtfully-shaped tone. Adriana Repetto (Cassandra), Jennifer Webb (shadow/pilgrim) and Eric Perry (Apollo) were also memorable. An appreciative audience greeted Saturday’s concert with an enthusiastic standing ovation.
Capella Clausura continues its 2015-2016 season in January with “Resoundings: Sit Inside the Chant.”