If tonight’s Tafelmusik concert at Jeanne Lamon Hall (Trinity –St Paul’s Centre), with Mireille Lebel mezzo-soprano, and led by violinist Rodolfo Richter is any indication, I think we’ll see a lot more of him in future concerts.
Richter doesn’t just play brilliantly. We heard his reading at breakneck speed of his transcription of Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto (identified as a “reconstruction” on the fascinating premise that the work was conceived by Bach for violin before it was composed for the keyboard): wonderfully apt for a concert titled “The Human Passions”.
And to begin he offered up a preamble that is the basis for my bizarre headline, as the entire concert could be understood as a kind of experiment. If I understood correctly, this was his concept, his baby that was being explored. Richter said –and here I paraphrase very loosely—that baroque composers express passion for soloists, whether they’re instrumental or vocal, with the baroque big three — Handel, Bach & Vivaldi–all on the program. One of the implications of this might be that the human voice is just another instrument, which is perhaps true. It is only in more recent times that composers exploited the natural dynamics of singers (the tendency for the voice to get louder as it goes up) rather than repressing such tendencies.
To phrase this more bluntly –and without Richter’s delicacy—we’d be asking a forbidden question, at least as much of a forbidden question as could be posed in a concert. But dare we juxtapose instrumental and vocal solos, to compare the way they work and even to ask which is more powerful, which is really the ideal way to convey passion? I had a professor long ago who proposed that all art could be understood as hypothetical, so that in her eyes performance was by definition a kind of research. It is in that spirit that I look at tonight’s concert, as an extraordinary exploration. My response is perhaps suspect as an opera fan.
Mezzo-soprano Mireille Lebel made her Tafelmusik debut even though she had already sung with them in her portrayal of Gluck’s Orpheus last spring on behalf of Opera Atelier (for whom Tafelmusik are the pit band). In tonight‘s program we more or less want back and forth between vocal and instrumental solos. As far as passion is concerned? Each operatic solo took a single emotion, or perhaps two, on the occasions when the da capo section was in a contrasting mood. We who are accustomed to seeing operas presented in their entirety might be astonished at the power of an anthology of unrelated arias.
But come to think of it, this might be far more authentic than what we usually see on our operatic stages even without the modernization of COC productions such as Hercules or Semele, and even compared to Opera Atelier. Lebel was in a lovely red and gold dress, smiling as she came up the aisle to sing her first solo, without any hint of a dramatic illusion. But that is how baroque opera worked, the magic generated by the voice and strengthened by our imaginations, rather than from the kinds of set & costume to which we have become accustomed in recent times. In the centuries of restricted onstage expression, rigid ideas of decorum (even without the additional power of the censor) meant that one would listen rather than watch, for a voyeuristic thrill. The expressions of grief in a mezzo-soprano’s coloratura offered a kind of aural voyeurism, a non-verbal exhibitionism by the singer for a strait-laced world. Each of Lebel’s arias radiated a genuine heat, varieties of beautiful pain in which the listener could indulge.
To answer the forbidden question, much as i enjoyed the other parts of the concert, their passion couldn’t really compare to what could be conveyed with a voice but instead resembled interludes, background music between the over-the-top emotion of Lebel in her arias. Notwithstanding the intensity each of the soloists brought to their concerti (Dominic Tresi– bassoonist as well as Richter), that was always music, never passion. A passionate bassoon cadenza in a baroque composition (Vivaldi’s concerto RV485) is at best an impressive display. Richter’s feat of playing the reconstructed concerto was more exciting given how well-known the original is, so we had the added intensity of a familiar work, and the game of signification we see in any adaptation or transcription. We are accustomed to calling great playing “passionate”, for the play upon our emotions of tension & release. But it was still gorgeous music, and not what i would call “passion”.
Lebel, Richter & Tafelmusik will be back for more explorations of passion through the weekend at Jeanne Lamon Hall.