By Robert Croan
The Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason, gave rise to individual freedoms that we now take for granted, among them the revolutionary concepts of liberty, equality and brotherhood.
The splendid South Florida vocal-instrumental ensemble Seraphic Fire, founded and directed by Patrick Dupré Quigley, is celebrating these ideals – no less timely today for being endangered in the current political environment – with a two-week Enlightenment Festival that spotlights Bach, Handel and Haydn, composers who were crucial to this 18th-century movement.
The festival opened Feb. 12 with a recital of Haydn songs, followed by the secular cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach on the weekend. The remainder of the Festival will feature Bach’s first three Suites for unaccompanied cello (Feb. 18 in Coral Gables’ Church of the Little Flower, Feb. 19 in Fort Lauderdale’s Sanctuary Church); and Handel’s exquisite pastoral opera, Acis and Galatea (Feb. 21 in Coral Gables’ First United Methodist Church, Feb. 22 in Fort Lauderdale’s All Saints Episcopal Church, Feb. 23 in Naples’ Vanderbilt Presbyterian Church).
The zealously religious Bach does not come immediately to mind as a product of the Enlightenment, but his 50 or more secular cantatas (only about 15 surviving) show an open-minded side, an atypical operatic bent, even a sense of humor. On the current program, seen at All Saints on Saturday night, Quigley juxtaposed two works by the German master with contemporary and earlier Italian pieces in similar vein.
He introduced the cantatas with a rare work by the virtually unknown Roman opera composer Stefano Landi (1710-84), Homo fugit velut umbra (Man flees like a shadow) – a “passacaglia of life” – with the repeated refrain, “we must die.” It’s a powerful musical statement, underscored by a reiterated bass line, each of the poem’s eight verses given a more elaborate accompaniment over the vocal lines, sensitively rendered throughout by tenor Patrick Muehleise and bass Steven Eddy.
Bach’s “Wedding” Cantata (Weichet nur, BWV 202), is a delicious suite of dance-inspired Italianate arias, connected by recitatives, to wish the newly united couple good luck and happiness. Each of the arias is cast in a Baroque dance form, showcasing individual instruments along with the soprano soloist: an allemande, a gigue, a pastorale, a passepied and a gavotte.
In this performance, the virtuoso instrumentalists took top honors. Geoffrey Burgess’ wooden oboe enhanced the introductory allemande, and later the lively passepied “Sich üben in Lieben.” Sarah Stone’s resonant cello dominated “Phoebus eilt” where the basso continuo line doubles as an obbligato solo in a lively gigue representing the Sun God’s horse-drawn chariot. Edson Scheid de Andrade’s supple violin evoked “springtime breezes” in the pastorale “Wenn die Frühlingslüfte,” while not least, there was the imaginative keyboard realization throughout of harpsichordist Leon Schelhase.
The weak link was soprano Margaret Rood, visually animated and quite charming, but pallid and monochromatic in her vocal timbre and interpretation of the words.
Separating the two Bach cantatas were two solo songs and two chamber duets by Monteverdi – notably the extraordinary “Zefiro torna,” superbly brought to life by Muehleise and Eddy.
The “Coffee” Cantata (Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht, BWV 211) was the evening’s highlight. Composed for a Leipzig coffe house in the 1730s, when drinking coffee was still considered a naughty habit, this is actually a little comic opera closer to Pergolesi’s La serva padrona (composed around the same time) than anything else in the Bach canon. Herr Schlendrian grumbles that his teenaged daughter Liesgen has become addicted to coffee. When nothing else works, he offers to find her a husband. She accepts, but slips into the marriage contract that she will be allowed to make coffee whenever she wishes.
Eddy showed not just vocal skills but also comic flair as Schlendrian, excelling in his two basso buffo arias. Joseph Monticello was remarkable in the flute obbligato to Liesgen’s “Ei, wie schmeckt der Coffee süsse,” while Rood did her best work of the evening in the girl’s exhilarating anticipation of marriage, “Heute noch.” It was also notable that even though this was a concert performance, Eddy stayed in character while seated through the others’ solos, reacting to every word and incident.
Muehleise was so captivating in the narrator’s brief lines that one wished Bach had given him at least a single aria to show off his chops. Highest honors, however, go to Quigley, who designed the entire festival and conducted each work with technical skill and attention to musical detail.