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Monteverdi's "Vespers" Shines at Christ Church

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Nov 18, 2014 - 10:57:42 AM in reviews_2014

L to R front: mezzo-soprano Paulina Vallereal, Annalisa Pappano, Earl Rivers (photo by Andrew Higley)
A performance of Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 is always an occasion.

Thanks to Earl Rivers and ensembles and artists of the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, that occasion came once again Sunday afternoon (Nov. 16) at Christ Church Cathedral.

Joining them were prominent early music guests, all performing on authentic instruments.

They included Alexander Bonus and Stephen Escher on cornetto, Chris Canapa, Alex Krawczyk and Linda Pearse on sackbut, Dieter Hennings on theorbo, Annalisa Pappano on lirone and viola da gamba, Elizabeth Motter on baroque harp, Adriana Contino on baroque cello, Rodney Stuckey on archlute and baroque guitar and Michael Unger on organ and harpsichord. The continuo group (bass line and harmony) comprised Contino, Hennings, Motter, Pappano, Stucky and Unger.

With the 38-voice CCM Chamber Choir and 24-piece CCM Philharmonia Chamber Orchestra and aided by Christ Church’ splendid setting and warm acoustics, it was a feast for both the eyes and ears.

The 13-part work, a set of liturgical psalms dedicated to the Virgin Mary, stands at the gateway to the baroque period. It looks both forward and backward, with sonata, motet, hymn and psalm settings plus a Magnificat, and contains some of the most “modern” music of its time. (Monteverdi may have written it to show his mettle and help gain employment, as he did later, becoming maestro di cappella at St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice in 1613.) Cincinnati last heard it, also by forces from CCM led by Rivers, on the 400th anniversary of the work in 2010.

The seven soloists, sopranos Grace Kahl and Jacqueline Stevens, mezzo-soprano Pauline Villarreal, tenors Allan Palacios Chan, Marcus Shields and Thomas Capobianco, bass Jacob Kincaide and bass-baritone Brandon Bell – a gifted ensemble -- are all CCM students.

It opened with a full voiced “Domine ad adjuvandum” (compare the introduction to Monteverdi’s opera “Orfeo”), filling the church with stirring color and gesture. Tenor Chan owned one of the work’s many highlights with the motet “Nigra sum,” as did sopranos Kahl and Stevens in their lovely duet “Pulchra es.”

The chorus gave a joyful ring to “Laetatus sum,” which also featured virtuosic singing by the soloists and the bright color of cornettos and sackbuts. Tenors Chan, Shields and Capobianco brought glorious sound and skillful ornamentation to the motet “Duo seraphim.” The chorus shone in “Nisi Dominus,” combining daunting precision with fine balances. A sublime moment occurred in“Audi coelum” for two tenors, Allan
Chan echoing Marcus Shields from the back of the church.

The Sonata sopra “Sancta Maria ora pro nobis” brought the early instruments to the fore in a wonderfully rhythmic, even catchy performance -- one could only wonder at the six-foot-long theorbo, skillfully handled by Hennings, and Pappano’s graceful gambas -- with the sopranos spinning a single line above. The hymn “Ave maris stella” for mezzo Villarreal and bass Kincaide was beautifully rendered and extremely touching.

The concluding “Magnificat” for the full company brought together a variety of styles in a joyous summation, prompting an enthusiastic ovation from the crowd.