Magnificat’s Mass for Midnight

Anna Carol Dudley on December 20, 2010

Magnificat’s Christmas concert this year is the celebration of a midnight Mass by Marc-Antoine Charpentier. Saturday night at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Berkeley, the Messe de Minuit was sung by a solo quintet, accompanied by an all-star early-music band of seven players under the direction of Warren Stewart.

Noels — popular songs already sung for centuries by French peasants, bourgeoisie, and aristocrats alike — had been incorporated into the Mass by Charpentier in the 17th century, and Stewart chose several of them to form the opening Introit. The subject of these noels, and of the Mass, was the familiar story of the birth of Jesus. An extended interpolation from another Charpentier work — separating the Gloria and the Credo — was a dialog between angels and shepherds.

The shepherds were the three male singers. Each voice had a unique sound, yet their blend in ensemble was excellent. Christopher LeCluyse’s clarion haute-contre voice (high tenor/alto) often led the trios, and was brilliant in the First Shepherd solo. Daniel Hutchings’ lighter tenor voice provided the harmonic binder in the trios and was appropriately assertive in solo entries. Robert Stafford, his bass voice both resonant and agile, has a gift for narrative; he quoted prophecy from the Old Testament as the Second Shepherd (Charpentier had a gift for anachronism), and celebrated the Nativity in rough rustic style in Tous les Bourgeois de Châtres. Soprano Jennifer Ellis Kampani was the angel who told the good news to the shepherds and, in her expressive singing of “surgite” (arise), urged them to go to Bethlehem. Ruth Escher joined her and the men in a spirited angel chorus.

Organist Jillon Stoppels Dupree played several solo segues between sections of the Mass. The band provided nice touches of color in a sommeil (sleep song), the ensuing Réveil des Bergers (Shepherds’ awakening), and a dancing rustic “March” of the shepherds.

The Credo included a remarkable setting by Charpentier of Et incarnatus (He was incarnate). The singing didn’t do that mysterious moment full justice. A dramatic change of volume or tempo would have been welcome. The same could be said of the Crucifixus. By contrast, Resurrexit had a fine lift to it. The Sanctus, a beautiful major-mode piece for the entire ensemble, was followed by an interpolated Elevation — O pretiosum (O precious banquet) — eloquently sung by Kampani.

A quiet ending of the Agnus Dei, and of the Mass, was provided by two flutes — perhaps a little echo left behind as the shepherds took off for Bethlehem.

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