Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra performs "The Imaginary Invalid"

Marc-Antoine Charpentier

As a member of the board of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, I was curious to attend Concert no.6 (the last for the 2011-2012 subscription series) “Le Malade imaginaire” (The Imaginary Invalid) March 27th 2012 in the Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theatre – a concert program of a very different kind. Honorary conductor Maestro Andrew Parrott was to have directed the performance, but was forced to cancel due to family illness. Founder and musical director of the JBO David Shemer directed the performance.

Molière’s three-act comédie-ballet “Le Malade imaginaire” was first performed in 1673. The playwright was well known for his comedic attacks on the professional attitudes of doctors and other privileged snobs. This farce, however, pokes fun at both the medical profession and its gullible clientele. As fate would have it, Molière, playing the hypochondriac Argan in the production, collapsed during its fourth performance and died soon after. The theatrical piece’s farcical intermèdes were written by the prolific and versatile Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704), writing in a vastly different medium to his sacred music! The work opens with a pastoral scene, where mythological figures are rejoicing and praising King Louis XIV. Vocal scenes are interspersed with court dances, “airs de violons” and ritornellos (there were no dancers in the JBO production). Choruses following solo arias comment on the actions (and remind us to praise Louis “a thousand times…the greatest of kings”. Molière clearly knew on what side his bread was buttered!) In the JBO performance, the spoken text, performed by actor Sasson Gabai, was written by poet Hila Lahav. In the first intermède, the monologue spoken by the intoxicated buffoon Polichinelle is punctuated by orchestral ritornellos. An out-of-tune ritornello prompts him to object:”Be silent, you violins….be quiet I tell you….It is I who wish to sing…It hurts...” With most of the characters changing throughout the work, the topic of each scene is completely different. In fact, only the last scene is directly related to the title of the work.

Following the French-style Ouverture, Gabai recites the Prologue, in which Hila Lahav makes generous references to our present government (not forgetting the Ministry of Health and Sport). We then heard soprano Anat Edri’s opening Italianate recitative and Aria (Charpentier had studied with Carissimi in Rome). Edri’s constantly broadening competence and excellence in performance of Baroque music is reflected in her expressive, lyrical singing and easeful ornamenting, making effective use of dissonance. Tenor Lior Lavid-Leibovici’s familiarity with the French Baroque style and language made for elegant performance. Another new face with the JBO was soprano Ofra Hurvitz-Znati, whose reedy voice added a pleasant color to ensemble sections. Soprano Carmit Natan, tenors David Nortman and Tal Koch and bass Guy Pelc are not new faces to the Baroque music scene; their performance and involvement was pleasing and hearty. Together with Edri, Lavid-Leibovici and Hurvitz-Znati, the finely balanced ensemble sang with alacrity, precision and artistry. Managing the French text well, the singers played several roles – from simple country folk, to gypsies, to archers, to doctors; costumes were minimal but effective and whimsical.

At the pitch of A=392 Hz, typical in French Baroque music, the JBO’s performance of court dances, interludes and other instrumental pieces was indeed one of the highlights of the performance - tasteful, delicate, reveling in quirky rhythms and as elegant as this fine French court music dictates. The string ensemble was graced with delightful playing of recorders (Drora Bruck, Katharine Abrahams), and oboes (Shira Ben-Yehoshua, Michael Lam), Bari Moscovich’s theorbo-playing, as ever, refined and subtle. In addition to her viola da gamba role, Myrna Herzog was discerning in her finespun use of percussion.

Sasson Gabai’s stage presence was a breath of fresh air: dressed in clown apparel (Polichinelle) or in a dressing gown and nightcap (Argan), he brought the house down with his tomfoolery, lightness of step, his superb diction, pleasant singing voice, unhesitating recitation of Lahav’s barrage of patter and his innate good humor. Towards the conclusion of the first intermède, Gabai (Argan), wishing to sing a “serenade”, makes a few raucous attempts at singing Mike Brandt’s 1970 hit “Laisse-moi t’aimer”, each time being interrupted by the orchestra; in frustration and anger he approaches the players themselves, aping their sounds. The scene with the archers was a hilarious dialogue in a mix of French (singers) and Hebrew (Gabai). Having been beaten by the bludgeon-bearing archers, Polichinelle, finally willing to pay up, offers them a credit card. In the final scene, Lahav’s text mixes the doctors’ so-called Latin with Hebrew into a pompous, side-splitting verbal concoction, in which Argan’s gastrointestinal problems are analyzed detail by detail in a manner that is comedy at its best. Eventually, becoming a doctor himself, capable of enumerating his own problems, Argan seems to be cured.

Hila Lahav’s texts connected admirably with Molière’s play and its absurdities. Her writing is sharp, witty and peppered with puns. Maestro David Shemer did a truly splendid job of drawing all the threads together – orchestra, singers and the acting, resulting in a very high quality performance, its energy and pace never lagging. If Shakespeare saw music as the “food of life”, Molière has proved that laughter is the best medicine. In this wild whirl of love and sickness, song and dance, Molière’s 17th century comedy, coupled with Charpentier’s superb music, brought the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s 2011-2012 subscription concert season to a brilliant, effervescent end.

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