Trevor Stephenson closes MBM season with light Bach, heavy Purcell
The close of the Madison Bach Musicians season (pictured above in a 2015 performance) gave me the opportunity to cross two famous works off my must-hear list: Bach’s frothy secular cantata, BWV 211 (known rightly as the “Coffee Cantata”), and Purcell’s seminal opera, Dido and Aeneas. I never imagined, however, that I would hear these works paired on the same program…
Ah, but as always there is discernible method to Stephenson’s programming “madness”; in fact, he made no secret of it when he was interviewed for a preview blog for Madison Magazine. He stated that there was something about the humor of Bach opening us up to fully experience the depth of the tragedy of the Purcell. It was apparent that the near-capacity audience at the Atrium Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society Sunday afternoon quite agreed.
As if the bill of fare wasn’t enticing enough, there was of course the promise of superb performances given on period instruments. It is one thing to get the sound authentic; better still to have the track record of Stephenson, his frequent conducting collaborator, Marc Vallon, and a roster of sensitive musicians who deliver not just accurate, but nuanced, performances.
Bach’s “Coffee Cantata” is a rare example of the stern German master finally cracking a smile, musically speaking; actually, it’s laugh-out-loud funny. The 20+ minute work was a sly commentary back in the 1730s on Europeans’ ongoing obsession with coffee. With a narrator, a frustrated father and obstinate daughter (obsessed with the beverage, of course), Bach poked fun at the notion that (in his time) it wasn’t quite as proper for the ladies to embrace the drink—even though Bach and most of the men of Leipzig were daily denizens of the many coffeehouses in the city.
But there is also the larger picture of the parent who simply cannot rein in the desires of their older children, and here is where the MBM visuals matched the music: the Narrator was attired in a contemporary barista apron, miming the preparation and serving of many cups of coffee to a lithe young woman, nearly as obsessed with her cell phone as her coffees, and the beleaguered father in business suit. While the latter, neatly sung but not overplayed by Elijah Blaisdell, threatens Lieschen with everything from house arrest to no wedding, she checks her phone, snaps selfies and of course guzzles multiple cups of heavenly brew. Nola Richardson delivered her pert replies as smartly as she was attired, and Vallon and ensemble (Stephenson at the harpsichord, per usual) added their stylish contributions.
Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, an allegorical telling for English audiences of 1685 of the tale from Virgil’s epic saga of the Trojan War and its aftermath, is just under an hour in length. It is easy to focus on the brief but doomed courtship of the defeated Aeneas, who has tarried in Carthage on his way to found the “second Troy” (Rome) and courts the queen; Stephenson’s vision was to enlist more local forces and give us a semi-staged production. David Ronis, director of University Opera, was credited with this stage direction, and Karen McShane-Hellenbrand, faculty associate in the dance department at UW-Madison were added to the production mix.
The result was a dynamic visual and musical experience. The opera is best known for Dido’s pre-suicide aria, “When I Am Laid in Earth.” When it is heard as a stand-alone excerpt, it is a suitably moving piece of despair—but gives only a hint as to its full power when coming moments before the end of the opera. On Sunday we had the whole package, with Richardson returning as Belinda, Dido’s closest advisor, and Blaisdell as Aeneas. Chelsea Shephard displayed a voice rich and powerful that seems easily capable of filling a larger hall than the Atrium at FUS; we assume she resisted the temptation to unleash all her vocal power, and delivered a performance both stately and expressive.
Other singers contributed to a chorus and filled secondary roles, notably Rachel Wood as the first Witch, and mezzo-soprano Margaret Fox as the Sorceress and Mercury. Gene Stenger, who doubled as barista/Narrator in Bach, handled the Sailor and choral duties in Purcell.
As is usual in MBM productions, the musical deftness of conductor Marc Vallon cannot be overstated; clearly he and Stephenson, based on their long artistic partnership, share the same esthetic perspective. His orchestra of a dozen or so nimble players featured the guest artistry of Simon Martyn-Ellis on theorbo—an instrument as beautiful to look at as to hear.
Whatever one concludes about Stephenson’s theory of pairing the comedy with the tragedy, two things are clear: one couldn’t perform the works in reverse order…but more importantly, the Madison Bach Musicians again demonstrated that when it comes to incisive productions of the great Baroque works, our city is blessed to have as fine an organization as can be imagined. Clearly they would be the envy of many a larger metropolis. Best of all, while the launch of their next season is months away, we can hear many of the players in June, accompanying the finalists at the Handel Aria Competition. Now please pardon me while I get back to my caramel latte…