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Norrington's Reading of `Idomeneo' Was Highlight at Boston's Orgy of Ancient Music

IN the corridors of the Boston Park Plaza Hotel, music accosted, then charmed, the ear from every direction, competing for the attention of the potential instrument buyer or just the curious passerby. Inside each display room, makers of the many exquisitely crafted reproductions of period musical instruments had congregated from around the world. They talked fervently about their wares. While musicians lined up to try them out, cognoscentes gathered for intense debate on arcane subjects, and others came together just to socialize and gossip. Keyboardist Steven Lubin, who made the first fortepiano recordings of the complete Beethoven piano concertos, had driven up from New York to give a new Rod Regier instrument a road test, but said he also enjoyed ``seeing my friends. It's like a party there. It's really fun.''

It was the week of the Boston Early Music Festival & Exhibition (May 28-June 4), in full flight at several - mostly non-air-conditioned - concert halls and churches, where audiences perspired past midnight through ancient works, some inspired and performed with inspiration, others of lesser merit or played indifferently.

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The clear highlight of the festival, Roger Norrington's exalted concert performance of the Mozart opera ``Idomeneo'' alone made the festival worthwhile. This work - given its dress rehearsal on Jan. 27, 1781, Mozart's 25th birthday - has had a troubled existence. It was neglected in some quarters because the its opera seria format was regarded as static and outmoded. From those who did promote its performance, the opera suffered endless cutting. Richard Strauss even added music of his own, and re-did the recitatives to bring out what he believed was a leitmotif in Mozart's score.

Mr. Norrington has cleared away the 19th-century romantic clouds surrounding ``Idomeneo'' and revealed a work of drama, depth, and humanity. He takes the opera at a brisk pace, but his crisp and alert tempi make complete sense in maintaining both continuity and tension.

Jeffrey Thomas, a last-minute replacement in the title role, did not have all the power the part demanded. Yet much of his singing was subtle, beautiful, and - as in Idomeneo's great aria ``Fuor del Mar'' - sublime. Jeanne Ommerle sang the part of Ilia affectingly, bringing a quite rapturous spirit to ``Se il pardre perdei.'' Lorraine Hunt lent a powerful sense of drama to the role of Idamante - Idomeneo's son - with her penetrating soprano and expressive color. Lisa Saffer's Electra began on the restrained side, but heated up to good effect as the evening progressed. Richard Morrison gave a dark but elating mystery to the music of Neptune.

The chorus was a model of both clarity and sensitivity, but above all else it was Norrington and the Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra which projected the strongest and most compelling musical imagery. Woodwinds, so important in Mozart's score, were used to especially sensual effect. The strings were wonderfully supple, drawing listeners inextricably into the drama and holding them breathless until the opera's end.

Many other concerts were less successful, but when the Boston Camerata came on stage in Emmanuel Church on Saturday night, nobody noticed the humid climate, so pure and spiritual was its performance of ``Requiem Mass,'' by Jean Gilles (1668-1705).

The Erwin Bodky Competition - this year for performance on stringed instruments - made for another major event in the festival. The final round seemed to indicate a clear-cut winner in violinist Carla Moore, who found a deep lyricism in Bach's ``Chaconne'' from Partita 2 in D minor and other works.

Back at the Park Plaza Hotel, all was sound and motion. Rod Regier of Freeport, Me., told of the first harpsichord he made in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology hobby shop and of his time ``sweeping floors'' for harpsichord-maker William Dowd, currently based at the Smithsonian. Dowd was later sighted playing ``Boogie Woogie on the St. Louis Blues'' on a harpsichord elaborately painted by John Phillips of Berkeley, Calif.

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Guy Derat, who came from France, stood proudly behind his display of viols, providing yet one more opportunity for musicians to ``come and find a palette of sounds which suits them.''

Music was to be heard from all directions, while laughter and conversations meandered in and out of the resulting aural stew. It was all rather captivating. And at least they had air conditioning there.

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