Cher Public

For a few dolors more

Brooklyn’s edgy, innovative LoftOpera began in 2013 with two of the three Mozart-da Ponte operas. Since then other than an excursion into (relative) modernity with Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia and rounding off the trio with Così fan Tutte, the company has settled into 19th century repertoire. However for its summer 2017 show LoftOpera has ventured into the early 18th century with the accurately but unpromisingly named Pergolesi & Vivaldi, a potentially compelling project that stumbled rather than soared. 

Perhaps because of the liturgically-based music the ambiance prior to the performance had less of the usual raucous party atmosphere at The Muse, an erstwhile circus school in a mostly deserted area of Bushwick, and I didn’t hear a single beer bottle fall over during the music. As always, stepsiblings Brianna Maury, managing director, and Daniel Ellis-Ferris, co-founder and executive director, stepped up to give a rousing welcome to the crowd

But Ellis-Ferris erred in declaring that “P&V” would be the organization’s first non-operatic presentation. Actually, two years ago my first LoftOpera experience was a wonderfully provocative mash-up of Les nuits d’été and Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen, and I was often reminded Friday of that Berlioz-Mahler mélange particularly when I discovered that both evenings were directed by John de los Santos.

For that earlier show, he created sensitive, involving scenarios that reconceived two concert works for the “operatic” stage. This time he attempted much the same thing connecting several short instrumental pieces and two arias by Vivaldi to Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, a passionate meditation on Mary’s suffering at the death of Christ.

The Vivaldi works morphed into a prologue in which a married couple lounged in bedtime attire on the central playing area while four young women dancers posed decoratively on side platforms. Soprano Heather Buck sang the lilting larghetto opening piece from one of the composer’s motets “Nulla in mundo pax sincera” which claims that the purest, truest thing in this imperfect world is Christ.

Randall Scotting then countered with “Sovvente il sole,” a ravishing aria from Andromeda Liberata, a recently unearthed pasticcio in which the hero Perseo declares that the sun and sea are at their most radiant only after an incursion of clouds and storms.

During these longish vocal pieces video screens at the back of the performing space showed each principal staring out in wonder then grimacing in angst. Eventually the soprano on stage grabbed her belly wincing in pain, then both exited during a final Vivaldi movement while the dancers set the stage with a table bearing a soup tureen, wine carafe, dishes and glasses.

The Pergolesi then began with the pair re-entering now garbed in elegant evening clothes (by Christian Joy), she in a smashing off-the-shoulder black gown adorned with gold star-bursts and red accents, he in a fitted black suit and black shirt accented with a florid red tie. The piercing opening movement of the Stabat Mater showed the now-alienated couple at a meal trying to cope with the loss of child while singing of Mary’s similar anguish.

Unfortunately this intriguing premise rapidly became diluted by the confusing busy-ness of the stage action. Through each of the other eleven alternating solo and duet sections, the pair distractedly moved from platform to platform often accompanied by their four gyrating back-up dancers (in raccoon-eye make-up). Both performers impressed with their fierce commitment and concentration but Pergolesi’s music is challenging enough without having to repeatedly climb up and down steps barefoot as, of course, being barefoot is now de rigeur.

While one understood de los Santos’s impulse to fill the enormous space with action, one actually wanted instead intimacy and insight into the struggling couple. It was difficult to discern the arc of the characters’s psychological journeys particularly when the wife inexplicably and aggressively stripped her husband to the waist (although given Scotting’s impressive pecs, who could blame her?). For the final tableau during the concluding “Amen”s, the soprano climbed up the scaffolding at the back to assume a crucified pose under one of the three pairs of feathered angel-wings hanging above.

While one might appreciate the evening’s dramatic ambition its enactment proved musically problematic. A singer previously unknown to me, Buck brought a rich and expressive soprano to her music but not one that ably handled its technical challenges—trills and melismatic passages were either rushed or smoothed over. Countertenor Scotting, whom I had recently enjoyed in Cavalli and Handel, was understandably more adept at the baroque music’s stylistic needs but he sometimes sounded rough and not at his vocal best.

Of the many many settings of the Stabat Mater Pergolesi’s might be the most popular except perhaps for Rossini’s grander and longer version, although I prefer Haydn’s extraordinary but rarely performed choral work to Rossini’s. Back in the day, Pergolesi was always done by two women including such curious combinations as Gundula Janowitz/Maureen Forrester or Gabriela Benackova/Lucia Valentini-Terrani, while two recent recordings feature Anna Netrebko and Sonya Yoncheva, both future Toscas. as their soprano soloist.

Gradually the emergence of scads of accomplished countertenors made female-male collaborations more popular as in this Loft production. Recently there have even been male-male renditions although René Jacobs did record the piece with a boy soprano decades ago. I just could never bring myself to give it a listen.

This Easter season the Romanian countertenor Valer Sabudus took the soprano part during an extensive European tour with Christophe Dumaux while Sabadus’s recording with Terry Wey which features unusually extensive vocal ornamentation is well worth seeking out.

Loft’s singers did add a bit of ornamentation here and there which was nice while both brought more vibrato than one is used to these days. The odd acoustic at The Muse didn’t aid either performer; when they were near me both voices rang out with much more focus than when there were even a bit farther away.

However, they blended well in the numerous duets, something which doesn’t always happen—the last time I attended a Pergolesi Stabat Mater Carolyn Sampson’s soaring soprano stubbornly refused to mesh with the pickle-voiced countertenor of Robin Blaze.

The biggest musical challenge of the evening was the precarious tuning of the enthusiastic but unidiomatic small string band conducted from the organ by Brian Gilling. But happily, concertmistress Ravenna Lipchik’s lovely playing of the difficult obbligato to “Sovvente il sole” was a joy.

Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo had been originally announced for its summer attraction but that enormously demanding enterprise was dropped for “P&V.” While it didn’t end up being particularly satisfying, one hopes that de los Santos and LoftOpera will continue to tackle transforming concert works into stage-worthy creatures.

Photo: Allison Stock