Sunday, March 1, 2015

Andres Mustonen directs Barrocade and soloists in Vivaldi's "la Senna Festeggiante"

Antonio Vivaldi
In its latest concert, “Vivaldi in Paris”, directed by violinist-conductor Andres Mustonen (Estonia), no new face to Israeli audiences, the Barrocade Ensemble offered its audiences the opportunity to hear a work of a different genre, probably a work unknown to most local concert-goers. This writer attended the production at the Kyriat Ye’arim Church, Abu Gosh, on February 28th 2015. Antonio Vivaldi’s “La Senna Festeggiante” (Seine Celebrations), one of the composer’s more obscure works, is a full length “serenata”, this genre being a cross between a cantata and an opera. Serenatas (or evening operas) are shorter, smaller-scaled operatic compositions intended for festivities and celebrations. This libretto for this work was probably written by Domenico Lalli, a librettist in great demand and a dominant force on the Venetian operatic scene. So why did Vivaldi write a work set in Paris, flavoring it so generously with French musical practice? Nobody is absolutely sure of all the details, but it seems to have been composed for an event in France to celebrate the restoring of amicable diplomatic relations between Italy and France after a 14-year break. Another suggestion is that it was written for the name day of Louis XV. There are, however, references to Versailles and King Louis XIV in the text. Exactly when “La Senna Festeggiante” was composed and even whether it was performed remains unclear.

Typical of this kind of work, La Senna Festeggiante has but a slight storyline: the Golden Era and Virtue are looking for true happiness. They find it on the banks of the Seine with the god of the river, La Senna. It follows the usual serenata form, in which the allegorical characters are introduced gradually, first l’Età ldell’Oro (The Golden Age) - Einat Aronstein, then La Virtù (Virtue) - Alon Harari and, finally, La Senna (The Seine, the river god) –Guy Pelc. Hallmarks of the French style to be heard in this work are the French-type ouverture, the use of many wind instruments, the fact that most recitatives are accompanied by strings and – most representative of French entertainment of the upper echelons – a grand selection of French dances. Some of the costumes were brought from Basel.

Of great interest was the singers’ use of early theatrical gestures. Barrocade brought Sharon Weller (Basel, Switzerland) to Israel to instruct the three singers in this specific theatrical “language”, a tradition of symbolic movements stemming from the Middle Ages and still to be seen in the old silent movies. American-born Sharon Weller is a singer, teacher and stage director, whose specialty is historical staging. The singers showed varying degrees of skill in this expressive use of the hands, face and eyes, with moments of eyes looking heavenwards (appropriate to these non-earthly characters) and occasional frozen stances. In addition to its purpose of entertaining members of the nobility, this work is virtuosic and staging it depends on the choice of singers of high ability. The young Israeli singers in the Barrocade production did not fall short, capturing the spirit of the allegorical and fluvial characters. Soprano Einat Aronstein, dressed in a flowing gold gown, gave an engaging performance, brimming with emotion, agility and rich sonority, of effortless soaring into the higher register of her voice, shaping phrases, ornamenting deftly and teasing the audience with dissonant notes held just that bit overtime at the ends of sections. Dressed in green and gold, his head crowned with a garland of gold leaves, countertenor Alon Harari made for an authoritative Virtue. The serenata genre fits him like a glove, his warm, ample voice giving as much life to recitatives as arias, as he delighted in the fantasy, joy and humor of the work, communicating with the audience with the wink of an eye. In Harari and Aronstein’s duets, the voices blended superbly as they interacted. The bass role, however, is perhaps the most demanding and virtuosic. It is certainly the most dramatic. Here Guy Pelc handled it well, with its fast tempi to be contended with in the lower register; his first aria “Qui nel profondo” described the Seine’s depth and rapid flow. A highlight of the performance was Pelc’s tender and compassionate singing of “Pietà, dolcessa”. And how advantageous it was to have singers knowing the work well, performing it without the encumbrance of holding scores!

Historian Alon Klibanov, dressed in traditional Venetian costume – red suit, black cloak, a gold-trimmed three-cornered hat and, of course, the white mask – provided the audience with information on life and culture in Venice at the time as well as on the very unique presentation we were witnessing.

Andres Mustonen’s interpretation of Baroque music goes for color and excitement. In his personal, unconventional style of conducting, the maestro wrung every gesture and emotion out of the instrumental score, producing much timbral variety in playing that was involved and full of sparkling freshness and poetry, with moments of magic. Much is to be said for the substantial presence of wind instruments, their reedy richness setting off the singers’ voices congenially. Yizhar Karshon’s harpsichord transitions and utterances at transparent points proved that eloquence and delicacy do not necessarily rule out spontaneity, imagination and daring. As to the variety of dances threaded through the score, we were presented with a broad range, from elegant court dances to the earthiest of country dances.

On its various levels, this exuberant and polished production was surely one of the highlights of the 2014-2015 concert season.


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