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Emmanuel Tackles Apollo


Apollo Belvedere
Apollo Belvedere

The music was fabulous; the staging was inane. Last night Emmanuel Music presented two tales of Apollo’s loves to a select audience in Longy’s Pickman Hall. Handel’s secular cantata, Apollo e Dafne, with the première of a newly-commissioned overture replacing the long-lost original, and Mozart’s Apollo et Hyacinthus showed us two operatic (in all but name) versions of the god in love.

The concert opened with Edwin Sung (b. 1992), Overture to Apollo e Dafne. The première of Emmanuel Music’s Handel Overture Composition Competition filled in the lacuna all performers of this work face. Written in a mostly Baroque idiom in the same B-flat major tonality as the beginning of Handel’s work, it is in two parts and assumes the format of a French overture. A slow introduction in a dotted rhythm yields to a fugal section before resolving to a perfect cadence. The anthemic music lasted about five or six minutes. Some tonalities, generally passing notes, seemed to invoke a post-Baroque harmonic idiom, but as a whole Sung did a commendable job filling this gap, composing in a style not dissimilar to Handel while also expressing something quintessentially his own.

After the briefest of pauses for the sound to clear, Ryan Turner led the orchestra into the start of Apollo e Dafne proper. Composed while Handel was in Italy from 1709 to 1710 during a period of papal edicts banning opera in Rome, this “pocket opera” tells the story of Apollo, having just vanquished Pytho, falling in love with Daphne. (This story is the first tale of the god’s love recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where it is characterized as primus amor, both the first in that epic and the deity’s first, and perhaps the archetype for those to follow.) From his first notes, baritone Dana Whiteside sang a powerful and vibrantly present Apollo the vanquisher. When the flute joined in its seductive song of love, the music took on a heavier cast than I think quite fit; perhaps this is also the result of stretched tempi. It made for a ponderous love, foreshadowing the weight which freights the end of this tale. This music cued the entrance of soprano Susan Consoli, as Daphne. In her second number, spurning Apollo, she took off, inhabiting her role with passion and force. Whiteside turned tender, yet retained full self-possession, in his aria, Come rosa in su la spina; Consoli found a gorgeous orchestral counterpart in her aria, Come in ciel benigna stella, as she struggled to reconcile her ideas of divinity and the ardent man before her. The chase leads to “escape”:  Daphne becomes the laurel tree, the woman removed from Apollo’s clutches even as he grasps at the leaves as emblem. Whiteside expressed great tenderness and depth of emotion at the end. Minimally staged, with slight blocking, the shop portrayed Daphne’s transformation by a wooden Consoli returning to stage, holding laurel wreathes and leaves. Understatement conveyed the dramatic action embedded in the words.

Before Mozart’s Apollo et Hyacinthus (1767), Ryan Turner addressed the house, noting his prior unfamiliarity with this work and observing that they had opted to cut about 95% of the recitatives. Instead, Susan Larson (who also directed) perched on a stool downstage right as narrator to stitch together the musical numbers. In all, this cut version ran about an hour, only slightly shorter than my Ensemble Baroque de Nice recording of the whole (clocking in at 81 minutes). It is a pity Turner opted for the pared-down version; this early work by Mozart a rarity on the stage or in the concert-hall, has much to commend it.

Mozart intended Apollo as an intermedio for interlarding, act by act, into a performance of Clementia Croesi, Clemency of Croesus. Both tell of a houseguest murdering a member of the host family. The drama survives only as a description and may well constitute a didactic masque more than a fully-fledged play. The intermedio survives intact. This combination of two works was a Salzburg Gymnasium tradition dating back to 1617; when Apollo et Hyacinthus premièred there in tandem with Clementia Croesi, this school-term performance tradition was already 150 years old. In the original, either boys at the Gymnasium or, in the case of Oebalus, a student at the nearby Benedictine University in Salzburg played the roles. Those familiar with the Ovidian tale will find many changes here:  Father Rufinus Widl, a Benedictine monk from the Monastery at Seeon, was a professor at the Salzburg Gymnasium, and he wrote the Latin libretto. Here Apollo and Hyacinth are friends, Zephyrus is the jealous, spurned friend turned murderer, and Apollo marries Hyacinth’s sister, Melia. As I have argued elsewhere (International Journal of the Classical Tradition 19 [2012]:  211 – 239), the words may work to suppress the homoerotic nature of the original love story, but the music reinscribes it. Apollo et Hyacinthus is a fascinating work filled with great music, and I would love to see it fully staged (with or without the Clementia Croesi).

For this performance, local sensation and rising national star Margot Rood (soprano) sang Hyacinthus, in pure, dulcet tones. The aria, Saepe terrent numina brought an assured invocation to calm, presented with a great depth of understanding. Deborah Rentz-Moore (mezzo-soprano) as Apollo stood out in Iam pastor Apollo, where self-assurance blended beautifully with a godhead worn lightly. Sarah Yankovitch (soprano) sang Melia, her light and sparkling voice well-met for Laetari, iocari; later she took on a darkness of voice, a depth and strength, hauteur to match, for Discede crudelis. To Katherine Growdon (mezzo-soprano) fell the role of Zephyrus, hardly a sympathetic character. Her darker voice, lower in range, paired perfectly with this morally darker role. William Hite (tenor) sang Oebalus, King of Laconia; he captured the rage, the vengeance, finally the prayerful attitude, of this pious and hospitable ruler who is tested mightily by the actions of friends and loss of his son.

Susan Larson dressed the singers in outfits worthy of high school today. The props reminded one of a grade school play done on the cheap—a Burger King crown, a plastic building-block altar. The colorful narration was rendered in contemporary slang. A cognitive dissonance between this stagecraft and music, troubled and disappointed me. My discomfort extended to the ways the narration makes explicit and overstates what is in the original recitative. Where is subtlety? Where is art? The sum of these parts made for a Hayes Code-era film of boilerplate morality, dumbed-down from the Widl/Mozart original. At the same time, the emphasis on the youth of the composers (recalling a different arts organization in town), combined with the youth-inflected narrative and dress, flavored the whole in unfortunate ways. Instead of youthful exuberance, this read as immature.

Given the vast audience for early music in Boston, I would have liked to have seen a presentation of Apollo et Hyacinthus which was truer to the original in all respects. This is not to say I want period costume drama; for this work there is not even a clear-cut period costume (pseudo-Greek raiment? Salzburger Enlightenment garb? Both? Neither?). I would be content with a simple, nuanced staging, especially if it also avoided the tensions between the facile morality of the words in this translation and the much deeper music.

Go, hear the music on Sunday afternoon. Hopefully it will inspire a fuller Apollo et Hyacinthus after which we could more fully adjudicate what Widl and Mozart wrought.

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College. He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.

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