The Sacramento Choral Calendar
A View from the Footlights - May 10, 2013
by Dick Frantzreb
In his pre-concert talk, Artistic Director Robert Johnson, promised a “fascinating and fun concert.” That certainly was true of the pre-concert talk itself. I find Dr. Johnson a master of painless erudition; his command of facts is amazing to me, and I especially enjoy the humor and enthusiasm with which he delivers these pre-concert talks. This was essentially a well-planned, informative, interesting, humorous college lecture.
The evening’s program consisted of selections from five operas, spanning a period of 300 years. It began with Monteverdi’s Orfeo which Johnson had explained as a “masterpiece” and the first opera for which we have the actual music. He had warned us that we might find the music of Orfeo difficult to appreciate, assuring us that “it will get better.” This was a warning that was completely unnecessary.
There were 12 singers in the Capella Antiqua ensemble: 7 men (including one male alto) and 5 women. The Cathedral of the Blessed Sacramento carried their sound beautifully, as it did the delicate sound of the harpsichord that provided the accompaniment for the selections from the first two operas. And it was played brilliantly by Faythe Vollrath, recent recipient of a doctorate in harpsichord performance.
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In the Monteverdi, there were many excellent solo performances from this chorus of soloists. And whether as a solo, duet or full ensemble, I found them expressive, elegant, confident, and composed. I specifically recall the memorable work of countertenor (or alto) Douglas Salazar, and I was especially impressed with the expressive singing of Jonathan Hansen: listening to him was a delight.
Here’s another thought about the idea of a “chorus of soloists.” Perhaps it was the distinctive timbre of so many strong voices, and perhaps it was also the fact that the group of 12 singers was so small, but I typically did not hear hear a well-blended ensemble sound. That said, it was still glorious as I felt myself transported back 400 years.
Johnson had explained Purcell’s The Fairy Queen as an example of composers’ willingness to pare down Shakespeare’s well-known, well-loved stories: The Fairy Queen is what was left after putting A Midsummer’s Night Dream on a strict diet. With the new mood of this opera, the chorus assumed a new formation, as formality and refined sentiment gave way to humor. And as the musical selections were delivered, smiles broke out among the singers, and I could hear laughter around me, especially when it came to the pinching of the drunken poet. Chorus members actually jumped to their feet for the “pinching chorus,” and there was a lot of acting (it was an opera, after all). They were clearly having fun with this; how could we in the audience not have fun, as well? In particular, I remember the smiles that broke out among a few of the men as the chorus “Now join your warbling voices all” was about to start. But beyond the humor, there was such extraordinary variety in vocal quality, combinations of singers, and musical style that I was never less than completely engaged with what I was hearing. One more highlight of this section of the program was a duet of countertenors, and I couldn’t help thinking that there was probably not another chorus in our area that could field two countertenors.
After intermission, the harpsichord was exchanged for a piano, also brilliantly played by Faythe Vollrath. In preparing us for the three choruses of Nicolai’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, Johnson had made a special point of asking us to follow the words in the program. The singing was to be in the original German – hence the usefulness of the translations. But he added that he didn’t have the heart to subject us to German for the small amount of dialog in the musical selections, so that was to be presented in English.
It was, of course, helpful to follow the translation of the German, but I didn’t consult it much. For a start, I was entranced by Douglas Smith’s portrayal of Falstaff. It was a complete tour de force: a well-acted, well-sung, nearly perfect characterization of that famous buffoon. During his performance, the men of the chorus jumped up to join in the drinking scene, and it was fun to see everyone get into the spirit. Surely the audience was smiling throughout as I was. Then there was the contrast of the unspeakably gentle “O Süßer Mond,” followed by another contrast with the lively chorus of townspeople. (“You have to imagine a lot of dancing,” Johnson advised us.) Throughout all this, the only person not smiling was accompanist Vollrath: she really had to concentrate.
There was a constant progression through the five operas sampled in this concert: more and more acting and a shedding of inhibitions. This progression was notable in The Gondoliers which seemed to feature more non-singing interactions among chorus members (such as facial expressions), accompanying the wonderfully witty lyrics. The use of language in Gilbert & Sullivan is indeed brilliant – and challenging for performers. But this evening’s “cast” rose to the occasion with excellent articulation and the rapid delivery demanded by the music.
In his opening remarks, Johnson had waxed particularly enthusiastic about Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha, which he described as “an American masterpiece… high art structured as any opera, but with an American idiom.” And indeed, Treemonisha was a complete revelation to me, as I imagine it was to most of the audience. Musical styles were different among the four selections presented, and vastly different from everything that had come before. But the performances were equally entertaining, as many of the singers brought personalities to their portrayals that were both appealing and effective. Then for the final number “Aunt Dinah has blowed de horn,” there was an explosion of energy suitable for the finale of a grand program like this. A survey of the evolution of opera over 300 years: who could have imagined that it would work as well as it did – a musical journey that delighted its audience from beginning to end?