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Le Poème Harmonique

June 7 & 9, 2006

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Cathedral and Carnival Poetries

By Anna Carol Dudley

Le Poème Harmonique blew in from 17th century Paris and Rome last week for the Berkeley Festival. Their first program was a Tenebrae service for the end of Lent, at the First Congregational Church of Berkeley on Wednesday evening. Four singers stood at music stands behind a row of Tenebrae candles, accompanied by a continuo of theorbo, viola da gamba, organ, and harpsichord. As the natural light from outside faded into darkness, the only light left was from the candles and the music-stand lights.

The music was from the late 17th century, most by Michel-Richard de Lalande, beginning with Psalm 71, In te Domine speravi (In thee, O Lord, do I put my trust), sung by three men — countertenor, tenor, and bass — some verses solo and others as trios. Soprano Camille Poul then gave expressive voice to a long setting of verses from the Lamentations of Jeremiah. Lalande's music, moving from syllabic to melismatic and from minor to major modes, was given a riveting performance, accompanied by continuo combinations of various colors and ending in a great chaconne on Jerusalem convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum (Jerusalem, turn back to your God). The men returned with two pieces by Marc Antoine Charpentier, one a setting of the crucifixion scene and the other a meditation for Lent, depicting a grieving Mary Magdalene.

Le Poème Harmonique
Photo by Robin Davies

Lalande's setting of Psalm 5l, Miserere mei Deus (Have mercy on me, O God), ended the service. A series of solo verses for soprano were paired with a cappella plainchant verses sung by the three men from the back balcony. Each solo was set differently, some lower, others higher, some syllabic, others highly ornamental, some quick, others slow; and the continuo orchestration changed from solo to solo. Again, Camille Poul gave splendid utterance to the text and the music. After each pair of solo and plainchant, a candle was snuffed, and the service ended in darkness.

Musical havoc in a carnival setting

Fast forward (or backward) to Zellerbach Playhouse on Friday night, scene of an early 17th century pre-Lenten carnival in Rome. The evening started in darkness, as a procession wended its way across the stage, fitfully lit by brief candle flares. Wednesday's singers, minus a soprano and plus a second tenor, intoned "miserere nobis" as they processed. Suddenly the lights came up and the church gave way to a roaring carnival, complete with acrobats, tumblers, jugglers, and commedia dell'arte characters. Wednesday night's theorbo and gamba were joined by more viols, violin, and winds. The music was clearly from an earlier era, often harking back to the Renaissance. The singers, no longer stuck behind music stands, ran all over the stage and changed gleefully from costume to costume, the countertenor in drag. The language changed from French-accented Latin to Italian.

Acrobats abounded and performed wonderful and often comic feats of tumbling, balancing objects, rope-climbing, juggling, and general havoc. The long candle-snuffer from Wednesday entered balanced on an acrobat's head. Continuo often consisted of a simple ground, over which musicians and acrobats provided inventive embellishments. A particular hit was the performance of Monteverdi's Lamento della ninfa, the nymph being a languishing countertenor with an incredible profile, accompanied by three corpulent Pierrots and a wandering viola da gamba held upright in braccio.

Vincent Dumestre, theorbist and artistic director of both performances, shared a bow with Cécile Roussat, the dancer who choreographed the Carnival. The show had been moved from Zellerbach Hall to the Playhouse, with the result that many disappointed would-be carnival celebrants had to be turned away. However, the show was adapted brilliantly to the smaller stage, and the lucky audience loved being so close. But let's hope that Cal Performances will bring Le Poème Harmonique back, next time with a big publicity blitz to fill Zellerbach Hall.

(Anna Carol Dudley is a singer, teacher, member of the faculty of UC Berkeley, San Francisco State University lecturer emerita, and director emerita of the San Francisco Early Music Society's Baroque Music Workshop.)

©2006 Anna Carol Dudley, all rights reserved