Baker at Monadnock, Struss at Longy
by Lloyd Schwartz
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.