An Elegant Evening of Early Music, Compliments of Opera Lafayette

 Logo for Opera Lafayette; courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

Logo for Opera Lafayette; courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

For the last few months, I have been angry with Opera Lafayette, mildly so, borne of disappointment.  It’s their fault; more later.  I only decided to attend “An Evening of Monteverdi” at the last minute, drawn mainly because I was not familiar with the music of Claudio Monteverdi and because Lea Desandre was to be a featured performer.  I quickly was glad I had attended as I encountered the emotion and haunting beauty of this early music.  One might compare the experience to attending an elegant dinner party, where charming guests are dressed formally and the authentic silver and best china are on display.  The planning and execution was almost flawless and the music was intoxicating.  Within minutes, I felt like I had already had an aperitif prior to sitting down.  Truly, the final applause should have been served with champagne (French) for everyone to toast a satisfying musical and cultural event. 

Monteverdi is famous for being there at the beginning of opera, the turn of the 17th century.  His opera Orfeo, though not the first opera is the first to become entrenched in the traditional canon of operas performed.  The exact timing or event when music, singing, and drama combined to become a thing known as opera is a bit messy.  The music for this concert was taken mainly from Monteverdi’s madrigals, an important secular musical form where poems are sung.  The music was provided by a small group of expert period players called a continuo, including at times all, or different combinations, of an archlute, harpsichord/organ, cello, bass, viola, and two violins.  At the pre-performance talk, Ryan Brown, violinist and head of Opera Lafayette, and Thomas Dunford, archlutist and guest musical director, discussed why Monteverdi’s music was selected, perhaps best summed up in the program notes: “Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) bridges renaissance, baroque, and modern musical worlds…prioritized an aesthetic of emotional persuasion over contrapuntal purity…the balanced treatment of dissonances and harmony towards emotional expression…”, this at a time when the church still dominated music.  His fellow composers were not always pleased with his changes to the established rules, which we now consider innovations.  Brown and Dunford even managed to connect Monteverdi's invention of riffing on a base line to Gladys Knight and the Pips, a journey of some distance since this would be Monteverdi’s 450th birth year.  In short, Monteverdi was the musical bad-ass of his day.

 Lea Desandre, Doug Balliet, Liv Redpath, and Jean Rondeau. Photo by Louis Forget; courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

Lea Desandre, Doug Balliet, Liv Redpath, and Jean Rondeau. Photo by Louis Forget; courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

The evening’s program consisted mainly of short pieces from madrigals, some based on poems by Petrarch, sung as solos or duets or ensembles, anchored by Monteverdi’s longer theatrical madrigal, Il combattimento di Tancredi di Clorinda, a narrated single scene where the knight Tancredi does battle with and defeats an armored warrior who turns out to be the woman he loves; a good example of the human emotion Monteverdi addressed with his music.  This group of performers seemed like the perfectly balanced crew for this production, each performer talented and well suited to their roles.  The voices for the singers were uniformly excellent.  Lea Desandre’s emotional renditions as a solo artist and with other singers were gorgeous, satisfying my expectations.  Young soprano Liv Redpath was also featured in the duets and ensemble pieces and was a voice I am anxious to hear again.  The guys in featured roles, tenor Patrick Kilbride as Tancredi and baritone David Newman as the narrator were excellent in their roles.  Alto Kristen Dubenion-Smith and bass Alex Rosen were quite good in the ensemble work but had less prominent roles; I hope our paths cross again. 

The music was enlivened by some improvisations in part two creating sort of a renaissance hoe-down beginning with archlutist Dunford, bass player Doug Balliet, and organ/harpsichordist Jean Rondeau and ending with the entire ensemble, adding an element of fun to the beauty of the music.  Violinists Brown and Elizabeth Field, Paul Miller on viola, and cellist Beiliang Zhu enhanced and rounded out the troupe.  I will make one minor criticism: the Tancredi and Clorinda piece might have benefited by having dancers provide the enactment; the posturing of Mr. Kilbride as Tancredi and Ms. Redpath as Clorinda did little to enhance the story-telling.  For an entertaining and scholarly review of the program, I refer you to Charles Downey’s review in Washington Classical Review.

So, from whence does my underlying disappointment with Opera Lafayette arise.  Last season, I attended my first Opera Lafayette production, Pierre Gavaeaux’s Leonore, ou L’Amore du conjugal.   It was an excellent, fully-staged version, and I thought I had found an excellent source of lesser-known operas.  It also gave me the opportunity to see within a matter of weeks, three versions of the Leonore story, including Beethoven’s Leonore by the Washington Concert Opera and Beethoven’s Fidelio by the Metropolitan Opera.  That opera hat trick was the highlight of the season for me.  Fidelio rolls around every now and then, but the other two are rarely performed.  That’s what I thought Opera Lafayette’s mission was – to produce mainly 18th or 19th century operas rarely performed these days.  I was anxious to see their plans for the 2017-2018 season; I was somewhat disappointed – no fully-staged operas.  In fairness, Opera Lafayette’s offerings have varied over time and their commitment is to period music, instruments, and dance, not just opera.  And the house was packed.  Maybe Opera Lafayette and I can get past this.  The forging of our new relationship, expanded to 17th century music and short works, began Tuesday night in the Kennedy Center’s newly renovated Terrace Theater.  I intend its further pursuit.

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The Fan Experience: After Monday night’s performance at the Kennedy Center, Opera Lafayette, as per their usual practice, took the production to an additional single night’s performance in New York.  The hour and forty minutes of music plus a fifteen-minute intermission seemed about right for this production.  They have two more productions coming up this season which are described at this link.  This was my first concert in the Terrace Theater, a smaller venue (475 seats) that was recently renovated.  The acoustics seemed fine to me, but I found the seats a bit cozy, especially mine jammed against the wall in the rear; not much fidgeting room, but not enough of a problem keep me from going back.  The Terrace Level is a maze, but there are lots of helpful volunteers standing around to help you find where you want to go once off the elevator.  Fighting rush hour traffic in DC to get to the Kennedy Center is always fun.  Please ignore my complaining, but do allow yourself more extra time than you think you will need, especially for weekday performances.

I discovered one unexpected treat that is available until November 5 on the Terrace Level – an excellent, free exhibition on American composer Leonard Bernstein, who would have turned 100 this year and whose music is being highlighted by the Kennedy Center this season.  Allow at least a half hour for the walk through, but it is well worth the effort.