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Radiance from the Darkness

New York
St. Mary the Virgins Church, 145 West 46th Street
01/23/2010 -  
Emilio de’Cavalieri: Lamentationes Hieremiae Prophetae

Miller Theatre Early Music Series presents: Le Poème Harmonique, Vincent Dumestre (Conductor)

V. Dumestre (© Per Buhre)

If education was one goal of Miller Theatre’s “Early Music” series, they scored a baccalaureate last night More important was that the church concert of Emilio de’Cavalieri’s 1584 Lamentations of Jeremiah was an unexpectedly stunning evening.

Cavalieri, the Roman aristocrat who had supervised music for the Medici family, has been, to most of us, a footnote or casual reference in histories of early Italian opera. But research shows that Cavalieri not only was a innovator of “monody” (solo accompanied songs) in liturgical music, not only one of the important figures in reviving (what he thought was) ancient Greek musical theatre, but, according to musicologist Carl Parrish, his famed “oratorio” was actually the very first opera, predating Peri.

The last is questionable. Not questionable was his variety of talents. More only a composer, lutenist, and administrator, Cavalieri was a choreographer, dancer, diplomat, engineer, philosopher and very arrogant critic. (See Coda below.)

Such research could not foresee this splendid performance of the Lamentations, staged in St. Mary the Virgin Church, that grand 150-year-old French Gothic Church near Times Square. And it was indeed staged, since the church went dark, while ten large votive candles were ceremoniously lit for the musicians (supplemented by discreet pin-lights). For the final “Libera me” from the hour-long work, the lights went out completely, only the music coming from the utter darkness.

This ensemble seemed, with one exception, authentic. All instruments were in the low range: treble and bass viols, one violin, two theorbos, and a small organ. Only five singers were here, but whether a capella, or with this low musical support, they resonated within the church, the Latin was clear, and the solo singing deserves a paragraph by itself.

Specifically, Cavalieri was an innovator in improvisation. For a Palestrina Mass composed about the same time, no solos were allowed. A logical adjunct to Cavalieri’s music was that the soloists could exercise all their musical tricks, extemporaneously, so we had the beginning not only of opera but of bel canto opera, some two centuries before it was officially on stage.

This brings up the highlight and the question of authenticity. The soprano soloist, Claire Lefilliâtre, rarely let a line pass without the most gorgeous ornamentation. Her range is enormous (at one point she was growling, then swooping up to a high A), her trills were faultlessly, she projected the most delicate grace notes, and allowed her melodies to soar into a heavenly atmosphere–all within the context of the liturgy itself. Without understatement, she was a combination of Beverly Sills and Ella Fitzgerald, but with always wholly holy!

Ms. Lefilliâtre was indeed astonishing, but one must question whether Cavalieri would have been happy with a mere woman doing this. No boy chorister of his time would have had the technique for her wonders. And while castrati were known for their flights of musical fancy, I doubt if any would have had such nuanced tones, such operatic beauty.

That aside, Ms Lefilliâtre and her counterpart, the equally inventive tenor Serge Goubioud, gave a special life and light to the music. If his voice had the occasional rough passages, they only made the solos more human.

Not that the music was ever boring. Non-experts are usually lulled by recordings of early Baroque music (Monteverdi excluded). Listening to this within the church, one paid far more attention to the changes of emotion within the slow tempos. Jeremiah could confess the his face was “foul with weeping” or made with “joy or gladness”, and Cavalieri let the voices rip with those emotions. And while recordings see instruments as glorified basso conitnuo, the viols and low theorbos (one played by conductor Vincent Dunestre, sitting humbly by the side of the darkened pulpit) were tones of comfort.

Le Poème Harmomique, formed 12 years ago in Paris, is making their first visit to New York, and they are hereby commanded to come again and again. When music is merely pure and ethereal, we poor mortals are apt to think of more pressing matters, like taxes and wars. When music is dramatic, unforeseen and performed by such accomplished artists, we are thrilled, attentive and in the long run, even glorified by such sounds.

CODA: Us non-purists are always gratified to find the personal foibles of Renaissance composers. Knowing about Lassus’s multi-lingual puns (like a 16th Century Joyce) or the intellectual humanity of Monteverdi is always gratifying. Here, though, is a new Cavalieri anecdote with which to entertain your next dinner party. According to Wikipedia, the composer was once asked his opinion of his contemporaries.

“My music,” he said, “moves people to pleasure and sadness. The music of Caccini and Peri moves them to boredom and disgust.”

Add the words “acidic critic” to Cavalieri’s voluminous résumé!

Le Poème Harmonique

Harry Rolnick



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