“More Between Heaven and Earth”: With Music From the Time of Thomas Jefferson

United StatesUnited States More Between Heaven and Earth: Soloists, Members of Clarion Society Orchestra, Salon/Sanctuary Concerts, Abigail Adams Smith Auditorium, New York City. 17.12.2012 (AS)

Performances of music from the Enlightenment — or public airings of the ideas of that era so central to our nation’s founding — are in scarce supply in contemporary America. Having both in one evening is fairly unheard of. That was a great part of the appeal of More Between Heaven and Earth (presented by Salon/Sanctuary Concerts), combining theater and opera, with a text culled directly from four decades of letters between Thomas Jefferson and the Italian/British composer Maria Cosway.

Staged at New York’s Abigail Adams Smith Auditorium, this “musical historical drama” starred Matthew Modine as Jefferson, Melissa Errico as Cosway and Kathleen Chalfant as narrator, and was expertly directed by Erica Gould. The director’s sister, Jessica Gould, Artistic Director and Founder of this series (sponsored by Gotham Early Music Scene) originated the idea, and wore additional hats as music researcher and translator, not to mention excellent soprano soloist.

The performance was – appropriately, given Jefferson’s thinking and writing on religion – a benefit for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The acting was superb, with Modine giving Jefferson a down-to-earth southern humanity and Errico infusing Cosway with a spark every bit the match for Jefferson’s towering intellect. Director Erica Gould managed to integrate selections from the actual Jefferson/Cosway letters into a seamless script that brought these historical figures to life.

The musical performances were first-rate. Jessica Gould researched repertoire referred to in the Jefferson/Cosway correspondence, which included music discussed by the two after having heard it, or in the case of Cosway’s songs, music that she wrote for Jefferson.

Tenor Karim Sulayman entranced the audience with his lyrical, focused and tender voice in arias and songs by Sacchini and James Hewitt. Soprano Jessica Gould was dazzling in two Sacchini arias, both perfectly suited to her expansive range, coloratura facility, and multi-hued, powerful sound.

The two singers had superb accompaniment by members of the Clarion Society Orchestra, who also shone in several instrumental pieces. Violinist Cynthia Roberts gave a beautifully mournful Corelli Adagio, and in this dramatic context, Avi Stein’s furious and powerful harpsichord solo, Duphly’s Medée, symbolized the onslaught of the French Revolution.

Cosway and Jefferson’s love story included an inevitable growing apart once they went to opposite sides of the Atlantic. But the pair and their many ideas were reunited and brought to life again in this lovely, stirring performance. Let’s hope this unique production will not remain a one-night only event.

Alexandra Simon