Tafelmusik ask the forbidden question

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 (click photo for more)

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.

This entry was posted in Music and musicology, Opera, Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Tafelmusik ask the forbidden question

  1. Thank you for this post.. Wishing you a pleasant weekend 🙂

  2. cinnamoncrumbs says:

    I enjoyed this concert so much that I attended twice — Thursday and Sunday. In between I read your blog, and thank you for it, since your insightful comments influenced my perspective and added to my enjoyment of the second performance. I think Veracini (a revelation to me) deserves a mention. The second allegro persuades me he could have been the “rock star” of his age, while the menuet must rank among the ugliest pieces of music I ever heard — intentionally so, I think, and performed with authenticity. I am not educated in the structure of baroque music but it was as if it was intended to be “used” rather than merely listened to. Also, perhaps you are being unkind to Mireille Lebel in use of the term “over-the-top.” She has a big voice and TSP is a comparatively small hall. True, a mezzo like Cecilia Bartoli might have provided a more nuanced performance but we were geared up for passion and we got that aplenty! Thanks again.

    • barczablog says:

      Thanks for the comments. Please note, when I speak of Mireille Lebel as “over the top” it is a phrase that can have many possible meanings. Yes some people might take it amiss. I meant it to mean that while she wasn’t in costume, and dropped out of character between pieces, that she managed to get very deeply into her portrayals, and they were much more than music. I should add (i love going using these comments to go outside the boundaries of a review…thank you for affording me the opportunity): that before the concert i had a magical experience. While i’ve interviewed Mireille (virtually) and been mesmerized by her performances in at least 2 previous operas, we had never met in person. So there i am, standing at the corner of Robert St & Bloor, a bit forlorn because my companion that night was sick and unable to attend. And across the street, coming back (perhaps from shoppers drug mart?) is the diva herself, Mireille dressed in jeans and seriously so breath-takingly beautiful as to make my heart suddenly beat 200 times a minute. We had never met before. I composed myself enough when she sees me across the street and waves (holy cow! me? tremble), and we say hi. And I tell her my date stood me up, would she like to come with me to see a concert, i um uh understand that the singer is really good actually. But she’s busy, she tells me. HA… oh well, it was a lovely first meeting with someone to make you star-struck and stammer and to make your knees weak (she is taller than me but unbelievably cute and sweet without ego or pretension). Count me as a big fan who wrote this review perhaps too quickly, and if anything i’ve said sounds disrespectful, it’s simply a reviewer putting his foot in his mouth, not an intentional critique. I prefer Lebel to Bartoli (if it’s fair to compare via a DVD i have of Bartolia as Cenerentola), because what we had this weekend was very different from what she offers on the operatic stage. Lebel had a different manner & approach here than she showed as Orpheus or as Annio. I still get short of breath and even tear up, just remembering her Annio with Opera Atelier, a totally mind-boggling portrayal of a trouser role by a big tall sexy woman who looked like a big tall man. Crazy! No wonder Fallis & Opera Atelier encored “ah perdona al primo affeto” every performance. I couldn’t get enough, my eyes popping out of my head and yes, crying like a baby the first time i saw it.

      Veracini? YES I too found that a revelation. Juggling all my notes, writing late at night (as i am wont to do), i didn’t have an easy way to slip that in. The last movement was particularly original, no?? every note was played in unison, one of the most original pieces i have ever heard, and decidedly informal as a result, as if the classicist was trying to thumb his nose at those who take it all too seriously, almost an early bit of deconstruction (if that isn’t a crazy usage to propose), a fit of music against music (to use Ben Jonson’s phrasing, slightly altered). Your idea that it might be meant to be used is a very perceptive possibility. We surely shouldn’t be seeing such compositions only from the perspective of concerts.

      • cinnamoncrumbs says:

        You got to meet the gorgeous Mlle Lebel — you lucky duck! I have a spare right arm to trade for that possibility. I had a similar encounter with Suzie Leblanc a little while ago and still swoon. My partner that night was holding in her purse my copy of Suzie’s CD “I Am in Need of Music,” and insisted on hauling it out for her to sign. I thought it a little gauche, but not enough to protest! Suzie graciously acceded.
        Veracini thumbing his nose? — that was my thought EXACTLY. He must have been quite a character. And your last sentence above is spot on.
        Baroq on, Barcza!

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