St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Minnesota Opera explore unusual repertoire
By Peter Alexander Feb. 7 at 9:35 p.m.
A weekend in St. Paul, Minn., provided the opportunity to hear some musical works that were completely new to me, and to most in the audience. On Friday (Feb. 4) the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra played music by Thomas Adès, Karl Amadeus Hartmann and some Austrian named Joseph Haydn. And Saturday (Feb. 5) Minnesota Opera presented the company premiere of The Anonymous Lover by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges.
Adès is a Grammy-winning British composer best known in this country for his operas The Tempest and The Exterminating Angel, both presented by the Metropolitan Opera (2012 and 2017, respectively). The SPCO opened their COVID-impacted, intermissionless, limited-capacity concert in the Ordway concert hall with “O Albion” from his Arcadiana for string quartet, one of his gentlest, most audience-friendly if not quite conventional movements.
First performed at the 1994 Cambridge Elgar Festival, the brief piece recalls in mood and gesture the “Nimrod” variation from Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Played with warmth and expression by four players from the SPCO, this was a quiet and genial beginning to the program.
Hartmann deserves to be better known, for both musical and political reasons. Born in Munich, Germany, in 1905, he survived the Second World War in spite of his profound but largely silent opposition to the Nazi regime. During the war he withdrew from public life and declined to have any of his music performed as long as the Nazis remained in power, a position sometimes described as “internal emigration.”
His music mostly conforms to the modernist aesthetic of the 1930s. He is remembered chiefly as the composer of eight well structured symphonies. The work chosen by the SPCO was Hartmann’s Chamber Concerto for the unusual combination of clarinet, string quartet and string orchestra. The clarinet, here played by SPCO principal Sang Yoon Kim, is the virtuoso star of the work.
Inspired by and written in honor of Zoltán Kodály, the Chamber Concerto is permeated by Hungarian idioms. A central set of variations is framed by melancholy, reflective movements that allowed Kim to show his dynamic control and beautiful tone in the softest passages. Following the yearning mood of the opening, the variations erupt in propulsive folk dance rhythms and a series of virtuoso variations that Kim carried off with impressive technique. The final Fantasie movement returns to the quiet character of the opening, with the clarinet and string quartet players fading in and out as their parts intertwine. At the end they all vanish in silence.
This is an attractive piece that I would love to hear again, especially performed with such commitment and polish. Anyone in Boulder willing to take up this unfamiliar gem?
Like the rest of the concert, Haydn’s Symphony No. 43 in E-flat was ably led from the concertmaster’s chair by violinist Steven Copes. Sometimes called the “Mercury” Symphony for reasons unknown, it was written in 1771—early in the development of the symphony. It comprises four relatively short movements.
Playing on modern instruments, the SPCO gave a spirited reading of the symphony. They brought out all the drama of the first movement, with attention to the expressive potential of every motive and gesture. They made the most of the relatively routine slow movement, which is not the strongest part of the work.
The modern stringed instruments created a robust sound, especially for the repeated chords that mark the minuet. Other than slight smudges getting started, the finale was clean and precise, characterized by great energy and strong contrasts in dynamics. The winds—pairs of oboes, bassoons and horns—are limited to harmonic support in the symphony, and in that role they played with admirable restraint.
This is an ideal program: attractive newer pieces deserving of attention combined with lesser known works by familiar composers. Such a program can expand the horizons of audiences in both directions. I would love to hear more concerts built on this model, in place of the usual repetitions of well-trod repertoire with only the occasional unfamiliar piece thrown in.
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The son of a French aristocrat and a teenaged Afro-Caribbean slave, Bolonge was born in Guadeloupe in 1745 and spent most of his life in Paris, where he was renowned as a swordsman. As a violinist he rose to the position of concertmaster and conductor of a popular concert series, Le Concert des Amateurs, in the 1770s. He composed at least six operas, of which only The Anonymous Lover (1780) has survived complete.
Bologne has received long overdue attention over the past two years, as both the COVID hiatus in performing schedules and political events have stimulated explorations of music by composers of color. His Violin Concerto in G major was performed by Harumi Rhodes with the Colorado Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra in October, and others of his works have been presented from Bangor, Maine, to Los Angeles and overseas. The Anonymous Lover has received several productions, both staged and virtual.
The Minnesota Opera production took full advantage of Bologne’s background, placing the events in 18th-century Guadaloupe. With that Caribbean inspiration, the unit set was filled with dazzling colors and flooded with tropical sunlight for the daytime—a welcome sight in subfreezing St. Paul!—and romantic moonlight for night. The choreography and some stage direction were inspired by Latin dance, with exuberant festivity on stage sometimes covering the music.
There were several other innovations for this production. Bologne is portrayed onstage by a dancer, who overlooks the proceedings from a balcony while pretending to be an immobile piece of decoration when noticed by the operatic characters below. This just too-clever device sometimes upstaged the main action and detracted from the singing, but served to remind the audience of the composer’s position as a mixed-race man legally defined as a slave.
There were other hints of Bologne’s life as well: some adroit fencing moves in the opera’s first duet, a violin candenza inserted into the Overture. In other modifications, two songs by Bologne have been added to the score for Dorothèe, otherwise a purely spoken role.
Any pedantic reservations aside, the production is endlessly fun, bright and gorgeous to see, and filled with action. Stage director Maria Todaro has created a highly entertaining and appealing version of an opera that is otherwise improbable in its action and often shallow in its emotions. Sometimes her endless imagination got in the way of the larger picture—as with the figure of Bologne, or the characters who kept hiding from one another, until all the ducking in and out of alcoves became tedious. Nevertheless, the opening night audience was delighted.
One innovation for which Todaro claims credit is that the leading female character Léontine overhears the supposedly anonymous lover, so that she knowns the truth throughout. A welcome interpolation in a typically male-centric operatic story, this serves to even the score: since she knows throughout who the anonymous admirer really is, she is manipulating him as much as the other way around.
The dancers Brian Bose as Bologne and his partner Jennifer Mack as Madame de Genlis were decorous and graceful. It’s not their fault they sometimes distracted from the rest of the performance. Individual musical numbers are separated by extensive passages of spoken dialog, but conductor Christopher Franklin kept the music moving at a suitably brisk pace.
A standout member of the cast was Symone Harcum as Léontine, the woman who is receiving the attention of the anonymous lover. Her strong, commanding voice rang out well in the 1900 seat Music Theater, and she found satisfying expressive content in her music. Her minor-key entrances, with suggestions of anxiety and frustration, are the strongest arias in the opera, and they were strongly presented.
As Valcour, the lover himself, Carols Enrique Santelli was challenged by the top of the range, where his bright tenor developed a hard edge, but was otherwise a sympathetic character. As his co-conspirator in anonymity, Ophémon, Aaron Keeney acted his part well and sang with confidence. Though dry in sound, his baritone blended well in the ensembles that are the largest part of his role.
As Dorothèe, Zoie Reams milked her interpolated arias for all they were worth musically and dramatically. Some stagey business with a handkerchief, reprised for curtain calls, turned hers into a memorable role. As the young lovers Jeanette and Colin—a sort of Caribbean Zerlina and Masetto—Leah Brzyski and Joseph Leppek were every bit as charming as they were meant to be. With her bright soprano and gift for perkiness, Brzyski has a future in the so-called “-ina” roles, should she want them.
Todaro and Harrison David Rivers are credited with the translations of the dialog, which were as natural as one dared hope for. In fact, The Anonymous Lover is an entirely artificial 18th-century comedy. The action is implausible and superficial, but Bologne’s music is polished and never less than enjoyable, even if it does not rise to the Mozartian level of transcending its material. Minnesota Opera and their capable cast have made Bologne’s previously overlooked opera into a treat well worth a trip to St. Paul for the remaining performances next weekend (Feb. 10, 12 and 13).
At 90 minutes, The Anonymous Lover is ideal for performance during a pandemic, as it can easily be played without intermission. The not-quite sold out Ordway audience remained safely masked during the performance.