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Opera Prima’s Well-Curated Playlist

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“Ah, perfect” one prophetic Boston Early Music Festival patron said as the lights dimmed at First Church in Cambridge on Saturday night before the highly anticipated American debut of Opera Prima. Joined by soprano Amanda Forsythe, the group delivered a banquet of songs from the Great Italian Songbook; no, not 20-something Italian Songs and Arias (although that volume contains some of the same material). The clever program presented songs from late Italian Renaissance and early Baroque in the form of a well-curated playlist of the era’s greatest hits with some off-color tracks thrown in to round it out. The musicians mixed and remixed songs from a variety of locales to create a lively atmosphere. Every song featured improvisation either in the song itself or in the segues between. Instead of being a mere variety show, their concision rendered the music intelligible through an understanding of the interplay of text and form.

Marta Graziolino (triple harp) and Gianluca Geremia (chitarrone) made up the chordal parts of the continuo band. In his pre-concert talk posted to the BEMF website, director Cristiano Contadin described their goal as being as expressive as possible without becoming a soup of sound. They were less of a soup and more of a hearty stock that gave pathos and sheen to everything the other performers did. Or perhaps they were a meringue or whipped cream that gently sat on the desserts offered by the melody. Despite the multiplicity of continuo instruments, the group had an overall light and airy texture with most of the bass register covered by the dulcet bass strings of the harp and chitarrone. The two instruments complemented each other very well. Both brought a sensitivity of touch (and timing) incapable by harpsichords and even more warmth than an organ could provide. Both performers brought the same vibrant energy to their respective solo numbers that permeates the rest of the concert. Graziolino performed Giovanni Kapsberger’s redundently-named Arpeggiata with a vertical conviction that drove the piece forward through its unexpected harmonic waves. If Kapsberger’s Arpeggiata demonstrated the composers facility for learning, Geremia’s lute rendition of his Canario exhibited his optimism and love for life through the Bergamasca groundbass.

Artistic director and viola da gambist Cristiano Contadin expertly led the group through the sets of songs. Trusting his companions, he gave few directions, allowing all members to contribute to the band. His shaped his basslines with colorful tones, variously imitating the sounds of the violin with flashy bravura, the bold bell-tones of the sackbutt, or the pizzicati of the plucked strings. The song accompanied by col legno beats proved particularly electrifying. His linguistic shaping of the line enhanced soprano Amanda Forsythe’s natural diction without over-asserting itself. The two settings of Amarilli, mia bella constituted a masterclass in how to apply these affects effectively. Contadin accompanied the first, the famous setting by Giulio Caccini, by himself plucking the bassline and adding some harmonies. The fact that Forsythe sang while seated next to him created an intimate scene. After a bridge, an anonymous English setting followed. For this, Contadin again accompanied alone but with bowed chords, double-and-triple stops, and glistening arpeggios. The texture was reminiscent of Captain Tobias Hume’s songs for voice and viol, though Contadin brought more of a warm Lirone-esque sound to it.

Marta Graziolino Arpa tripla; Mauro Spinazzè Violino; Cristiano Contadin Viola da gamba and conductor; Amanda Forsythe Soprano;
Gianluca Geremia Chitarrone; Andrea Inghisciano Cornetto (Renata Contadin photo, Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista, Venice)

Cornettist Andrea Inghisciano and violinist Mauro Spinazzè made up the treble. With dignity and grace, they accepted their subservient role in the texture, adding vivacious improvisations when allowed but sensitively making room for the continuo and voice to shine. Their improvisations were not show-stopping cadenzas but moments of domestic dialogue between them and the singer in which they offered commentary in the course of their choruses on the composer’s written material. I had difficulty guessing which melodies were composed 400 years ago and which were being made in front of me as both sounded to come from the same place and time. The most satisfying ad libs came in Benedetto Ferrari’s ecstatic Amanti, io vi so dire when, during a verse about foolish love, Inghisciano interjected a handful of horn blasts to underscore the words “No, no” soft enough that some may not have heard it but we all felt it. Mauro’s parallel thirds against the voice in the song’s final verse heightened the drama from a tone of “sour grapes” to headstrong defiance.

Soprano Amanda Forsythe’s unmediated stage presence imbued every song with an air of personal connection. Her flamboyant and extroverted style (rarely heard to this degree in historical performance circles) elevated the Italian music from lively to alive. Even when seated, her intimate understanding of the Italian language and idiom fully realized the music and communicated its message as though its language was our own. I rarely checked the libretto, rather opting to let the beauty of the speech wash over me. The performance brought forward the profound meaning of the text, belying its appearance of siumplicity. I most appreciated her proper use of acciaccature and mordenti to create glittering moments of dissonance that made her melodies soar. The great clarity and sparkle of her voice allowed these moments shadings and hues to bloom as if she were working in oils. Some came so unexpectedly that they elicited intended chuckles .

An Annoying Side Bar: Roman de L’Osenge

While the performers had organized the program into six scenes of song and dance, the concert-going experience broke down into cycles of coughing and lozenge-sucking by the gentleman sitting directly behind me. For an-as-yet-undetermined reason, he began to cough during the second set of songs. The performers become noticeably distracted by the unfolding emergency as the coughing worsened from a dry tickle to a deep convulsion. The spell crescendoed with a good hack that dislodged enough air to blow my hair forward followed by a short, sudden inhalation of the type which usually precedes a major coronary or stroke. We held our breath for him. Out of the liminal stillness, as the instrumentalists segued into the succeeding song, an unmistakable rustle began: the sound of a hand fishing through a purse. Many around me winced at the first crinkle of the wrapper. Every shifting sound informed the audience on the progress of the candy’s procession. First it moved into her hands as she fumbled with the plastic, then into his grasp as he struggled to get a hold on it between coughs. Every twitch of the finger broadcast through high pitched noises the state of the procedure as we yearned for it to end. Eventually, he managed to exculpate the medication from the wrapper and shove it into his gums. The aftershocks of clearing the throat updated us on the rate of the candy’s dissolution until silence settled on the scene. The wrappers gentle floating into the aisle signified the depth of the peace. Though I did not turn around to see them, I do believe that, with the help of a police sketch artist, I could perfectly recreate the scene from the auditory cues alone. The truce proved short-lived as the sound of distant regurgitation brought itself up again and the mouse-like crinkling of another candy broke the silence.

A musicology PhD student at Boston University, Christopher Hodges earned a M.M. in organ performance with Peter Sykes.

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