The Boston Phoenix
September 3 - 10, 1998

[Music Reviews]

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Magic moments

Baker at Monadnock, Struss at Longy

by Lloyd Schwartz

James Bolle Nearly three hours into The Magic Flute, the Monadnock Music concert version of Mozart's miraculous late masterpiece suddenly sprang to life. Soprano Sharon Baker, as Papagena, the bird-woman of the bird-man Papageno's dreams, tripped lightly onto the stage, her eyes full of love and mischief, her voice focused but radiant, chirping but never squeaking. The Papageno/Papagena duet is an irresistible, practically foolproof moment in Mozart's wild mixture of burlesque, fairytale, Masonic ritual, and humanistic wisdom. Baritone Robert Honeysucker had been in good voice and consistently in character all evening, a genial, bemused Papageno (perhaps leaning a little on Bill Cosby in manner and expression) -- yet hampered by being score-bound in a role that demands freedom from inhibition; but he responded to Baker with unbounded enthusiasm and energy. Instantly, conductor James Bolle and every player in his orchestra seemed complicit in the comedy. It was a passage of delicious enchantment, and one of the best performances of this duet I've ever heard.

Bolle ends every summer season of Monadnock Music with a concert opera, and more often than not they've been notable for their overarching dramatic and structural understanding -- more than, say, for their technical refinement. But this Magic Flute was both ragged and sluggish, lacking Bolle's usual insight and shapeliness. Mozart's score does some radical gear shifting: it veers -- practically careens -- between low comedy and high philosophy. The comedy should be unbuttoned, not afraid to be foolish; the serious side, commitment rituals of love and duty, needs to evoke awe and mystery.

Bolle failed to make these distinctions. There were practically no demonstrable transitions of tone. This was a performance without emotional or intellectual urgency -- nothing mattered because nothing seemed to mean anything. High notes were neither the apex of a dramatic arc nor the brilliant conclusions of a phrase; low notes didn't plumb philosophical depths. Except for Baker, no one lit up the words. Diction was as muddy as Bolle's pacing.

The narration, delivered by longtime friend and Monadnock Music supporter Charles Merrill (the retired headmaster of the Commonwealth School), was blessedly brief. At least there was less of it than the libretto's spoken dialogue. But it was skimpier than the plot summary in the program. And do we really need to be told that Papageno represents "natural man enjoying food, drink, and pretty dames"? Or that Pamina's aria is "the most beautiful melody in all of Mozart"?

The singing was largely adequate but (except for Baker and Honeysucker) without sparkle. Tenor Stephen Tharp tended to bloat and belt Prince Tamino's elegant lyrical outbursts. Marta Johanson punched out the Queen of the Night's impossible coloratura but suggested no meaning for the runs and roulades, and her "real" singing lacked tonal security and steadiness. Bass Kurt Link had some impressive bottom-of-the-well low notes as Sarastro, but they'd have been more effective if they had more dramatic purpose. As the Princess Pamina, soprano Judith Pannill had a bright, clear, light tone whose attractive timbre unexpectedly paled and flattened in her great lament. Instead of tension and intensity, she offered a kind of sit-com blandness. Her spunky but lightweight Pamina was Mary Tyler Moore to Honeysucker's Cosby. The only other really solid performance came from baritone Mark-Andrew Cleveland in three small roles.

At the Longy School, August brought some refreshingly original programs offered by the Janus Ensemble, a volatile group whose personnel kept changing. At the center of the two programs I heard (and the reason I wanted to hear them) was mezzo-soprano Jane Struss, a Boston treasure, who was in her finest fettle for two unusual works for voice and string quartet. First was Respighi's neglected but gorgeous, more-chromatic-than-Puccini "poemetto lirico" from 1917, Il tramonto, a lush yet powerful setting (in Italian) of Shelley's compelling narrative poem from 1816 "The Sunset," about a sensitive young "genius" and the unexpected calmness of his surviving lover after his death (in mood rather like that of Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht). Struss's uncanny emotional articulation and passionate vocalism and the magnificent string playing (Halden Martinson, David Hobbie, Bina Breitner, and the exceptional cellist Timothy Roberts, a last-minute replacement) made the piece come alive at every moment.

The following week, Struss and the superb tenor Michael Calmes presented the world premiere of The Lamentations of Shinran, Boston composer Richard St. Clair's fascinating cycle based on the teachings, warnings, and self-flagellations of the 12th-century Japanese Buddhist preacher Shinran Shonin (and sung in medieval Japanese). Elements of minimalism and Orientalism skirt St. Clair's music, but I was mainly struck by its originality, accessibility, and color. The singers were stirring, and though the string quartet (Jeffrey Howard, Oliver Klein, his sister Annette Klein, and cellist Ben Peterson) was not as elegant an ensemble as the previous week's group, it contributed to a rich and memorable experience.

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