Dallas — The Orchestra of New Spain specializes in the music of the Baroque played on historically correct instruments with carefully researched performance practices. As a result, you can be transported back to the 1700’s, hearing this music as it would have been performed for the royalty fortunate enough to be able to afford a court orchestra. Lately, Artistic Director Grover Wilkins as ventured into Baroque opera, also authentically produced, with great success.
The stylized movements, elaborate costumes and graceful poses may strike a modern audience as almost humorous and exaggerated for the first few moments. But it doesn’t take long for you to catch on to the style and enjoy a trip in Wilkins’ Way-back Machine.
On Thursday at Dallas City Performance Hall, as part of the Dallas Symphony’s Soluna: International Music and Art Festival, Wilkins presented shortened versions of two major works from the era that fit in with the festival’s overall theme of Myths and Legends.
The first was by Joseph Bodin de Boismortier and based on Cervantes’ Don Quixote. The second was an earlier work by Henry Purcell, The Faerie Queen, based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This program was also a nod to the recent 400th anniversary of both literary giants’ death in April 1616.
Both of these date from a time when opera and ballet were inseparable. In fact, Boismortier’s work was called an Opéra-ballet and a ballet sequence remained a requirement in any opera performed in France for hundreds of years. As late as 1894, Verdi had to add a ballet in the third act of Otello in order for his masterpiece to be performed at the Paris Opéra. While not as rigid a requirement as in France, ballet was also included in most Baroque operas in England and so it is in The Faerie Queen.
For these Soluna performances the ballet was supplied by the Avant Chamber Ballet with choreography by Artistic Director Katie Cooper. Her choreography had the grace and charm of Baroque dance but she added some modern elements. For example, dancing en pointe (in toe shoes) didn’t really appear until the early 20th century.
While both works contain dance episodes in specifically designated sections, most baroque music had a dance influence throughout. For example, the movements in the Bach suites are based on a series of dances: such as the gavotte, minuet and gigue. Thus, Wilkins didn’t draw hard lines between ballet and the sung music, creating a blending of the two very different elements.
Wilkins’ ONS is structured like a resident company, using many of the same players and singers in most of his productions. One of joys of attending his performances over the past few years is to experience the growth of some of his singers, such as tenor Nicholas Garza and especially soprano Anna Fredericka Popova.
Garza has perfected the passage between his tenor voice and the high range that require many such singers to switch into falsetto. While he may still be doing that, the switch is so smooth as to be imperceptible. Further, he has mellowed out an edge that marred his sound in some registers in earlier times.
Popova’s transformation is striking. When we first heard her, she was singing without vibrato, which many think is proper Baroque style. However, it isn’t very pretty. Recently, she has developed an acceptable Baroque vibrato that is just enough to enhance her sound without moving into romantic throbbing. The result is a voice of great beauty and flexibility, even possessing a fine trill that she can toss in on almost any note.
(In one section, a cadenza with solo flute, she brought her voice down to a very soft and hushed level, yet it projected to the back of the hall.)
All of the other singers were equally good. Soprano Jenni Tarde has a light voice that, unlike most similar voices, is more pleasing in the middle register than top. Baritone Patrick Gnage showed lots of personality as Sancho Panza, but didn’t project as well as the other singers. Will Hughes has an imposing baritone voice with some bass overtones; he sang the lowest notes with ease. Soprano Megan Pachecano was also impressive.
Diction was spotty throughout making it hard to follow the plot lines and the composer’s realization of the descriptive titles. There is a good case to be made for projected supertitles, even when the piece is in English.
Wilkins’ orchestra was not as crisp as in past performances. Mostly, this was due to the placement of the players at the back of the stage to allow adequate space for the dancers. Usually, they are within a foot or so or Wilkins’ watchful eye and his unusual baton technique, especially when in one, is easier to discern. Also, they were spread out in a crescent rather than grouped tightly together, creating an unavoidable time delay from one side to the other.
However, this is a minor quibble, and probably unavoidable considering the need for dance space. The orchestra played with excellent style and especially strikingly accurate intonation, the bane of other similar groups.
The dancers were just as outstanding. When given the same choreography, the dancers’ movements were precisely together like the corps de ballet in major companies. The male dancer, whose name I couldn’t discover in the program, was splendid: a spark plug of energy with effortless leaps and clean quadruple pirouettes. Even more important and challenging, if not as showy, his partnering skills were remarkable. He was always exactly where he was needed: properly grounded, braced and balanced to assist and instinctively knew when to let the ballerina shine.
If you have never experienced Baroque opera, you owe it to yourself to catch a performance of ONS when they next produce such a concert.