Rameau work sung with skill

Opera Lafayette time travels to interesting places


February 03, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The first time is rarely a charm for opera composers. They often go through several struggles with the art form before creating something masterful. Then there's Jean-Philippe Rameau. Right out of the box, he fashioned a work of extraordinary imagination, complexity and beauty, a work that set 1733 Paris buzzing.

Today's typical opera-goers, disinclined to venture too far back in music history (or, needless to say, check out what's being written now), may not know or care much about Rameau, let alone that initial hit Hippolyte et Aricie. They should. Opera Lafayette, the first-rate early music ensemble based in Washington, demonstrated why on Saturday afternoon at the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center in College Park.

Just as it did there last season with Gluck's Orphee, the company presented a sensitive and affecting performance that opened up a sunny window into the rarified world of 18th-century opera. It was only a concert version, but more evocative and atmospheric than some fully staged productions seen around here in recent times.

An all-out theatrical treatment would have been fun, of course. An opera where the mythological action goes to Hades and back, and with assorted deities, monsters, nymphs and forest denizens in the mix, offers unlimited possibilities for costuming and stagecraft. But just the sound of the opera can help the eye see an awful lot - from the personalities of individual characters to the rise of nature's fury (imitated by the orchestra).

If you ever wondered why audiences way back when could sit through nearly four hours of an opera about convoluted goings-on of antiquity, a perfect explanation can be found in the way Rameau humanized the figures and their motivations in Hippolyte et Aricie. The plot revolves around Phedre's love for her stepson Hippolyte, who loves Aricie. There is tragedy (the suicide of Phedre, the punishment of her wrong-conclusion-prone husband, Thesee), but also nobility and warmth. Rameau makes each complicated turn interesting, each figure revealing.

Opera Lafayette's founding artistic director Ryan Brown conducted with an elegant touch. Tempos were judicious, allowing for a natural, steady flow. A couple of entrances and phrase-endings could have been a little tighter, but there was an overall cohesion and alertness to the proceedings.

The singers made much of the music and the words. Soprano Gaele Le Roi (Aricie) sang exquisitely, in tone and inflection. Robert Getchell (Hippolyte) used his sweet tenor tellingly. Bernard Deletre caught the anguish of Thesee in a rich bass-baritone and superbly molded phrases. Jennifer Lane's dark, lush mezzo and concern for every subtlety in the text enriched her portrayal of Phedre.

Members of the excellent chorus filled the supporting roles; stand-outs included a distinguished opera veteran, bass-baritone Francois Loup, and soprano Jennifer Ellis. Demonstrating considerable fluency on period instruments, the orchestra seemed to relish every nuance in the score.

It was gratifying to spend so much time with Rameau and his genius, and with musicians who could do such justice to both. I look forward to Opera Lafayette's next musical time travel.

Meeting the challenge

If Gustav Mahler had written nothing but his Symphony No. 5 and Richard Strauss nothing but the Four Last Songs, both composers would rank high. Everything about each man and his music can be found here in these works - their distinctive way with melody and harmony, total command of orchestration, depth of expression.

Neither the symphony nor the songs make an easy assignment, especially for student musicians, but the Peabody Symphony Orchestra came through the daunting challenges effectively Saturday night, thanks in great measure to conductor Haijime Teri Murai. He has revealed a flair for the whole sound-world of Mahler and Strauss in previous performances at Peabody; this time, he seemed doubly inspired. And inspiring - the orchestra played with the kind of confidence and intensity (if not quite the exactitude) expected of well-seasoned pros.

Lori Hultgren was the ardent soprano soloist in the Strauss songs, with their moving poetry reflecting on the approach of death. Her top register had a harsh edge, but her phrasing hit home. Murai supported the singer smoothly. Some small details eluded the ensemble (the brass and woodwinds had the most trouble), but it was clear that the players were connecting strongly to the score.

That connection intensified in the Mahler symphony, which found the strings, in particular, articulating with considerable finesse and expressive power. Murais' interpretation commanded attention. Personal touches included an extra dash of Viennese lilt in the Scherzo, a beautifully unhurried pacing of the famous Adagietto, and a wild dash toward the finish line in the last movement. The students are fortunate to be working regularly with a conductor who offers compelling ideas, not just technical skill, someone who can tap the heart and drama of Mahler so eloquently.

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