Superb guest artists spark Opera Lafayette’s Monteverdi program

Wed Oct 25, 2017 at 12:10 pm

Lea Desandre and Liv Redpath performed in Opera Lafayette’s concert Tuesday night at the Terrace Theater. Photo: Louis Forget

Claudio Monteverdi would have been 450 years old this year, occasioning major anniversary commemorations elsewhere. Washington may not be among the cities on John Eliot Gardiner’s epic Monteverdi tour, but Opera Lafayette came to the rescue. A scintillating program centered on Monteverdi’s dramatic madrigals graced the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on Tuesday night.

This event opened Opera Lafayette’s season, but few of the company’s regular musicians were involved. The continuo section, so important in the performance of Monteverdi’s work, consisted entirely of visiting instrumentalists. Thomas Dunford led most of the concert from the archlute, the first guest music director in Opera Lafayette’s history, with vigorous shaking of the head and a pliant sense of the ebb and flow of this expressive music.

Dividing his time between harpsichord and portative organ, the former stacked on top of the latter, Jean Rondeau traded improvised and rhythmically active continuo realization with Dunford. In the text painting style of the madrigals, Monteverdi often emphasized volatility, switching styles and tempi with breathtaking rapidity. In the first piece, “Hor che’l ciel,” one of the string players was caught out on a stray note at one of those surprise full stops.

It was a rare mistake in an evening of exceptional music-making. Mezzo-soprano Lea Desandre was noteworthy for the intimacy of her voice in “Lettera amorosa,” in which a letter-writer experiences viscerally the vicissitudes of love’s torments and delights. Dunford provided the sole accompaniment on the archlute, sitting next to her on a stool, with impeccable flexibility and variety of sound.

She was even more affecting in the heart-wrenching “Lamento d’Arianna,” excerpted by the composer from his opera on the subject of Ariadne. Desandre’s delicate voice, with some poignant intensity, sought every dissonance and expressive quality in a performance that felt so natural it could have been improvised. Dunford and Rondeau, along with Doug Balliett on the bass and cellist Beiliang Zhu, never allowed this music–which is essentially a long recitative–to become monotonous or repetitive.

Desandre’s voice combined seamlessly with soprano Liv Redpath in the flighty, run-filled duet “O come sei gentile.” This quasi-trio sonata (two high voices plus continuo), is featured in some of Monteverdi’s greatest music. In the tragic duet “Ohimè dov’è il mio ben,” the two women perfectly judged the combination of their voices in anguished suspensions, sweetly resolving, with one never overwhelming the other in sound.

On her own, Redpath was also excellent, an intense quiver in her tone communicating the grief of the nymph in the “Lamento della ninfa,” set to a repeated descending bass pattern, filled out inventively by Dunford’s archlute. The three male singers were at their best in this piece, forming a cohesive unit observing Redpath’s distress. Bass Alex Rosen had the most rounded, beautiful sound of the trio, sadly not to be featured in a solo.

David Newman’s strong, slightly pinched baritone worked well in the narrator part of “Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda,” in spite of one memory slip, which required prompting from Dunford and was recovered after a few seconds. Tenor Patrick Kilbride and Redpath also acted out the combat of the two lovers, as well as Clorinda’s baptism into the Christian faith, in a stylized semi-staging directed by Richard Gammon. Kilbride’s voice was generally light and pleasing, but a lack of clarity could creep into the tone at times of strain. Ryan Brown, Opera Lafayette’s artistic director, and two of Opera Lafayette’s regular musicians ably provided the three string parts in this marvelous piece.

Dunford and Rondeau remained the stars of this show, however, adding an air of improvisatory unpredictability, as in the opening of the second half, where an improvisation grew out of their tuning, eventually morphing into the opening of “Volgendo in ciel.” That spirit of inspiration in the moment was extended in an interlude inserted into the middle of the piece.

Here and in the other ensemble madrigals, like the delightful “Zefiro torna” at the end of the concert, the group of five (sometimes six) singers blended their voices to create a shimmering fabric. The smaller sound of historical instruments was better suited overall to the more active acoustic of the renovated Terrace Theater. The softer the timbres that were produced, especially in the “Lettera amorosa” duet, the more grateful the hall sounded.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Elebash Recital Hall of the Graduate Center (CUNY), in New York City.

2 Responses to “Superb guest artists spark Opera Lafayette’s Monteverdi program”

  1. Posted Oct 26, 2017 at 9:14 am by Laura Youens

    Lea Desandre was Silvia, the Messenger in L’Orfeo in Gardiner’s performance. She was outstanding! I’m sorry I missed this concert, but am grateful that I got to hear all 3 operas on the Monteverdi 450 tour. The highlight of my year!

  2. Posted Oct 26, 2017 at 11:40 am by Gary

    I was particularly impressed by Liv Redpath and Alex Rosen. Mr. Rosen will be in Juilliard’s production of Rameau’s Hippolyte and Aricie next spring. I am REALLY looking forward to that (if I am able to get a ticket).

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