Peabody goes back, ensemble in the now

`Orfeo,' electronics focus of shows


March 11, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Last weekend's aural possibilities included chronological extremes - a visit to the very earliest days of opera and a taste of some new and recent music for flute, clarinet and computer. As it turned out, decidedly contemporary elements spiced that ancient operatic experience, too.

Opera officially dates to the 1590s, but the first extant work that fully meets the terms of the genre is Claudio Monteverdi's Orfeo from 1607. This telling of the mythological tale of Orpheus descending into the underworld to retrieve his beloved lacks the theatrical sweep of the composer's Coronation of Poppea, written more than three decades later, but it boasts a still-astonishing richness of musical ideas. Many of them came through effectively in the Peabody Chamber Opera's presentation at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

On Saturday night, Ryan de Ryke sang the title role with considerable eloquence and, for the most part, technical ease. His phrasing proved particularly telling in the extended aria, Possente spirito, which lulls Charon to sleep and enables Orpheus to enter Hades. The rest of the cast sang with varying degrees of finish but served the score honorably.

The production was fortunate to have a hearty ensemble of period instruments providing the distinctive sound of history - theorbo, sackbut, recorder, harpsichord and the rest. Webb Wiggins conducted from the keyboard with gentle propulsion and lyrical grace.

Director Roger Brunyate typically puts a lot of thought into his stagings. He may have put a little too much into this one. The trouble started during the orchestral opening of the opera, which became background music for the acting out of a contemporary wedding. Bride and groom (Euridice and Orpheus) no sooner tied the knot than gunfire from an unseen assailant broke out, killing her, wounding him. Orpheus spent the rest of the opera in and out of a wheelchair. A long note from Brunyate in the program explained all this with references to random violence, 9/11, feverish visions and coping with grief (he left out the D.C. sniper).

I certainly don't need mythology served up in literal fashion, and there's certainly plenty of room for theatrical innovation with an opera like this one. But, I wasn't convinced by the overall concept. The bloody wedding, in particular, seemed like a cheap shot. Still, some aspects of the production, which unfolded fluidly on a mostly bare stage, proved persuasive. And Mary Bova's costumes neatly encompassed multiple eras (tri-cornered hats made an appearance, as did the modern-day tuxedo), helping point up the timeless features in the story.

New Music Ensemble

The New Music Ensemble at Towson University focused on a small corner of the repertoire Sunday night at the Center for the Arts - works for flute and/or clarinet, with and without electronic elements. Flutist Lisa Cella and clarinetist E. Michael Richards, members of a faculty new music group at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, expertly performed a program that was of more academic than musical interest.

Smooth Wood, Flash Metal, composed by William Kleinsasser, director of the Towson ensemble, received its first performance. Flute and clarinet are shadowed by a computer, which emits mostly subtle fluttering to complement the flute's ruminations in the first movement and Morse code-like patterns as counterpoint to a mood-bouncing flute/clarinet duet in the second. In the third, the computer provides an increasingly rich soundscape, often picking up on the clarinet's complex solo, before fading into abstract vibrations that ultimate vaporize.

Despite rapid bursts of melodic activity and intriguing colors, this new score fails to hold the ear tightly, a failing shared by some other works in the concert. Cort Lippe's Music for Clarinet and ISPW, for example, has its moments, with alternately breathy and wailing clarinet lines (that Richards delivered with ample bravura). But the electronic rumbling that goes with it is dull, and the whole piece has a long-winded feel. Eric Griswold's tightly integrated duet, Three Moires, with its flashes of minimalist motor-rhythms, and Giacinto Scelsi's Ko-Lho, which exemplifies the composer's trademark focus on a small musical cell, run out of steam fairly quickly.

Anne La Berge's rollin' for flute alone, however, is a lot of fun, calling for the performer to emit as many loud breaths and grunts as notes; it's an exuberant, amusing, sometimes jazzy romp, and it received a vibrant performance from Cella.

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