A Day on the Town, A Night in Hell – Early Music in Seattle

A Day on the Town, A Night in Hell : Early Music Guild, Spectrum Dance Theater, and Seattle Theatre Group, Stephen Stubbs (music director), Theodore Deacon (producer and artistic director), Roberta Russell (set designer), Carl Bronsdon (costume designer), Moore Theatre, Seattle, 17.4.2011 (BJ)

Vecchi: L’amfiparnaso

Stage director: Anne Zaslove

Translation and performing edition: Theodore Deacon

Pantalone: Joe McCarthy

Arlecchino: Paul Del Bene

Dottore and Capitano: Chad Kelderman

Monteverdi: Il ballo delle ingrate

Stage director/choreographer: Donald Byrd

Amore: Catherine Webster

Venere: Debi Wong

Plutone: Doug Williams

Ingrata: Linda Tsatsanis

Additional chorus members: Matthew White, Ross Hauck, James Brown, and David Stutz

Dancers: Kelly Ann Barton, Kylie Lewellan, Amber Mayberry, and Tory Peil

Many years ago, in a pre-production talk for his cast, I heard Jonathan Miller describe certain contemporary opera directors’ compulsion to, as he put it, “demonstrate our moral superiority to the work in hand.” I am reminded of this by Theodore Deacon’s attitude to the works he’s involved in performing – only Mr. Deacon also want to demonstrate his artistic superiority to the likes of Vecchi, Monteverdi, and Purcell.

Back in February, he opined in a program note that presenting Purcell’s The Indian Queen in anything like its original form “would involve some five hours of melodramatic and poetic tedium,” in explanation for his decision to effect a kind of blend of Indian Queen elements with the plot of Act V of Rameau’s Les Indes galantes. This time, here is what he told us about L’Amfiparnaso: “In our production we have distilled Vecchi’s broad and busy panoply of characters and story lines down to the basic character types and dramatic situations common in commedia dell’arte scenarios. . . . Thus by confining the plot to one set of lovers and a single clever servant a more focused and integral story line is achieved.” But Mr. Deacon has been busy on the moral as well as the artistic front, having “altered the notorious ‘Jewish Sabbath’ scene to reflect modern sensibilities.”

As a Jew, though a merely ethnic and non-observant one, I am as much insulted by the latter piece of bowdlerization as I am when people change the text of Bach’s St. John Passion on the assumption that I need to be shielded from the sensibilities of earlier times. Such practices recall the methods of cookbook writers to take recipes for exotic dishes and denature them for timid Western palates by moderating precisely those elements that make them delicious or interesting in the first place.

On the purely artistic side, it surprises me that a musician of the taste and passionate integrity of Stephen Stubbs is willing to go along with this kind of thing. And yet, with all that said, I must emphasize that the double-bill presented in Seattle’s Moore Theatre under the apt title “A Day on the Town, A Night in Hell” was an almost unmixed delight.

True, I would have preferred to hear L’amfiparnaso in the original language – but Mr. Deacon’s translation was wonderfully fluent and often wickedly apt for this naughty and exuberant piece of musical and societal satire. The performance, too, which Mr. Stubbs led masterfully in addition to playing the chitarrone, was of virtuoso quality, and the knockabout antics of the principal characters were brought off with breathtaking accuracy and zest.

Still, Orazio Vecchi is nowhere near as inspired a composer as Monteverdi, and it was naturally the latter’s equally if more subtly naughty Ballo delle ingrate – a counterpart to Andrew Marvell’s plea “To his Coy Mistress” – that provided the biggest musical pleasures of the afternoon. Brilliantly played, and sung – happily in the original Italian – by an ensemble whose purity of intonation achieved genuinely thrilling harmonic clarity, it was also staged with as much tact as imagination.

I haven’t always enjoyed Donald Byrd’s choreography in the past, but on this occasion he penetrated to the very heart of the work. The presentation of Plutone as a sort of infernal chief executive, smoothly elegant rather in the manner of the Devil in George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman, was another triumph for Doug Williams, whose rock-solid voice and commanding stage presence had already impressed me no end in Acis and Galatea during the recent American Handel Festival. Debi Wong as Venere and Catherine Webster as Amore offered a witty mother-son act, Linda Tsatsanis was a suitably tormented Ingrata, Spectrum’s dancers were stylish and graceful, and in the essentially non-barking role of Cerberus countertenor Matthew White maintained his torturous canine posture with aptly dog-like devotion.

So, despite my strictures on the subject of directorial depredations, this was another highly successful entry in what has been an early-music season of unusual richness and impressive caliber.

Bernard Jacobson