Tuesday, October 8, 2013


Plymouth Church
October 5

An engaging exploration of women in distress.

Erudition and aesthetics rarely come together as sweetly as they did in “Woman Scorned,” the opening program of Les Délices’ fifth season. With visiting mezzo-soprano Angela Young Smucker providing the vocals, Debra Nagy and her French Baroque ensemble served up a confection with body, a quintet of lush musical excerpts whose beauty belied their troubling themes.

The women in question were mostly tragic characters from Greek and Roman mythology – Juno, Phaedra, Circé and Medea, along with Armide, the beautiful witch of Tasso’s La Gerusalemme liberata who became the subject of operas by Lully and Gluck. In a long set of well-informed program notes, Nagy made the case for them as strong, loyal women driven to extremes by betrayal and rejection. The double thread of power and vulnerability that she developed in prose was carried through with intelligence and sensitivity in music recounting their anguish.

Jean-Féry Rebel’s sonata La Junon provided a tasty opener. Written originally for a trio, it developed nicely with Michael Sponseller setting a tempo on harpsichord and Nagy, on oboe, striking engaging sonorities with violinist Julie Andrijeski and viola da gamba player Emily Walhout.

Feeling the pain.
Smucker joined the group for the Ohio premiere of Thomas Louis Bourgeois’ cantata Phédre et Hipolytte, which recounts the tragic death of Hippolytus and his stepmother’s remorse. Smucker has a full, richly emotional voice that almost overwhelmed the quintet at times. But it fit the subject matter perfectly and was instantly dominant, filled with longing and regret. The strings provided animated accompaniment, colorfully describing Hippolytus’ demise and then underpinning Phaedra’s guilt and pain.

A cathartic break was in order, and Sponseller provided it with a solo interpretation of a well-known passacaille from Lully’s Armide, arranged for harpsichord by Jean-Henry d’Anglebert. A bit uptempo and choppy at times, it was more expressive in Sponseller’s hands than precise, though engaging in its melodic flow, which sounded almost modern.

Smucker returned to the stage for Medea’s riveting “Quel prix de mon amour” from Charpentier’s Medée, rendered with exquisite craftsmanship by the ensemble. The vocals were drenched in emotion, as Smucker imbued every syllable of her impassioned 19 lines with just the right balance of sadness and vengeance.

The final piece was another Ohio premiere, Colin de Blamont’s cantata Circé. It’s a bit of a departure for an early 18th-century work, featuring dissonant colors and colorful chromatics in a staggered opening, and soaring vocals. Smucker was piercing without being harsh in the higher registers, and tender in the contemplative passages. After invoking the power and despair of Circé’s wrath, she found notes of joy in the final resignation of love won and lost. Skillful, detailed work by violinist Andrijeski added to the impact of the piece, which had the power of a full-blown operatic excerpt.

The program left this critic wanting more, and marveling at how much Nagy and her players are able to squeeze out of seemingly simple, often obscure works. In theory, such rarefied fare should appeal to only a small group of listeners. But in Les Délices’ hands, the combination of serious scholarship, fine playing and enthusiasm for the material has provided entree to a rich repertoire for a solid and growing audience. Magnifique, n’est-ce pas?

For more on Les Délices: http://lesdelices.org/Index.html

For more about Angela Young Smucker: http://www.mezzoangela.com

Photos: Ensemble courtesy of Debra Nagy/Smucker by Wendy Benner Photography

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