BEMF’s Young Artists Training Program used a cast of six vocalists and four instrumentalists to stage Élizabeth Jacquet de La Guerre’s Cephale et Procris. No one seemed to have difficulty finding the venue as the small-scale production took place before a large audience in NEC’s Jordan Hall on Friday afternoon. All of the performers were early in their careers (under 30) and current students or recent alumni from a handful of American colleges with thriving HP programs, including Julliard, Eastman, and Case Western. Directors Gilbert Blin, Jason McStoots, and Jeffrey Grossman selected the performers after auditions last Fall and worked with them throughout the month of May to prepare for this week. The singers also sang in the festival’s headliner opera Circé and could be heard in the choruses of Greek warriors, happy lovers, priestesses, and dreams.
The three sopranos Alissa Magee, Kristine Caswelch, and Mara Yaffee brought a balanced variety of sounds to the production. Magee sings with a light, flute-like timbre which floats throughout the room. Gentle, bell-like vibrato warms her sound and gives it a natural, individual inflection. In somber passages with full orchestral accompaniment, such as the beginning of the second act or the finale, her tone blends with the strings like consort music while remaining clear. Caswelch’s sparkling voice, great diction and sprezzatura, fluid transition between aria and recit. Yaffee, speech-like, made use of extra-musical sounds, like the stomping of shoes. All three actresses performed their part with good acting (a notorious weakness of opera singers), exhibiting a range of emotions from sadness and death to happiness and anger.
The three male leads Richard Pittsinger, Jason Rober (baritone), and Peter Schoelkopff (bass) displayed the ideal for each voice and acting type. Richard Pittsinger, unlike what his last name might imply, led the opera from the demanding role of Cephale. The versatile tenor sang well in both solo and ensemble, matching his tone to the context. I most enjoyed his graceful trills and clear pronunciation of funky French consonants. Jason Rober, double cast as Arcas and La Jalousie, explored each of these characters and gave them different qualities. As Arcas, a lower-class servant, he sang with an effortless, natural tone, unafraid to lean into the juicy port de voix ornaments. As La Jalousie (the personification of Jealousy), he executed the aria Pour calmer vos ennuis la ciel ici m’appelle with drama and bravura. Peter Schoellkopff (bass) presented his role with a commanding stage presence. The tall singer (who can tower over the neck of a theorbo) filled the hall with a projecting bass voice that gave gravitas to his character. As the sympathetic rival in the story’s love triangle, he played the part with sincerity without flippancy. As I noted with the women, the male singers were also good actors.
The instrumental ensemble balanced around Chelsea Bernstein excellent continuo accompaniment on viola da gamba. She managed the part without overpowering the singers. In recitatives, her gamba produced a warm, clear sound more akin to purring than to singing which blended magically with Dani Zanuttini-Frank’s theorbo. Together, they created a colorful sound which was enhanced but a bit obscured by the pleno harpsichord accompaniment. The three projected a powerful bass for dances and interludes which violinists Lydia Becker and Ryan Cheng took full advantage of. The upper strings produced imaginative sounds throughout the show, at times imitating the sound of an oboe or trumpet. In recit accompagnato, they played as gingerly as viols and produced a dark tone from their G and D strings reminiscent more of violas than violins. Their playing had the ideal, relaxed, distinctly French quality Jacquet de La Guerre’s music demands.
Associate Director and Stage Director Jason McStoots’s program notes debate the nature of the story which, at first glance, seemed to be a stock Baroque opera: lots of pointless confusion ending with someone singing while they die. However, as he points out, the conflict in the opera comes not from confusion but from a lack of trust between lovers. This aspect of the story is best exhibited in the fourth and fifth acts, as Procris (Alissa Magee) questions Cephale’s fidelity. A lesser production might have played this with screaming and histrionics, but Magee gave a more subtle delivery of the part. While voices were raised by the end of the act, the situation slowly escalated. I would say they allowed the music to direct them, using Jacquet de La Guerre’s pacing for the scenes to guide the drama.
The lack of conductor was the most impressive aspect of the performance. Jeffrey Grossman, Music Director and harpsichordist, gave a few cues throughout the show, but mostly for the start of sections for the instrumental ensemble. I didn’t see him giving any cues to the singers who were either downstage or far away from the band for most of the performance. It seemed like a nightmare to do with most singers and difficult to pull off, but this talented group of young artists managed it without the audience noticing disruptions.
Though the costumes were largely recycled from previous BEMF productions (and whatever was just hanging around the basement of NEC), Seth Bodie’s designs seemed to tell the story as well as the singers. The costumes animated the love triangle between Borée, Procris, and Cephale whose clothing was yellow/green, blue/green, and blue respectively; Cephale and Borée wore contrasting colors while Procris wore a combination of their colors. Cephale’s blue coat camouflaged him when he hid in the turquoise proscenium arch of Jordan Hall. La Jalousie’s (the personification of Jealousy) green cloak may have been a bit on the nose, but its deep color seemed almost black from some angles, underscoring the character’s sinister nature.