Review: A magical recorder

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

The Performance Hall at the Logan Center for the Arts was the venue for a spectacular evening of early music when the University of Chicago Presents hosted Dorothee Oberlinger, an unforgettable virtuoso on the recorder.

Oberlinger is a supremely agile and versatile musician. She put her prowess on display with a range of recorders — from the very large and low to the very small and high.

She brought with her two other fine players: harpsichordist Alexander Puliaev and baroque cellist Marco Testori. As a trio they exhibited fine ensemble work, deftly matching each other even through subtle, elastic tempos within phrases and gradual shifts in dynamics. Their rapport also made for an excellent blend of sound.

The concert opened with Puliaev and Testori playing on stage. After brief introductory music, you could hear a recorder off-stage, and soon Oberlinger made a dramatic entrance, slowly walking while playing Giorgio Mainerio’s “Shiarazula Marazula.” Although she was wearing a gorgeous, glittering black floor-length gown and stylish stilettos, your attention was instead immediately drawn to the hypnotic sound she drew out of her baroque bass recorder. She further charmed the audience by later explaining that the music came from a farmer’s song which was sung when they wanted rain, apologizing for that night’s precipitation in Hyde Park, eliciting laughs from the audience.

This was followed by Mainerio’s “La Lavandara Gagliarda” where Puliaev’s harpsichord introduction had lace-like delicacy while Oberlinger’s Renaissance recorder had warmth.

Giovanni Spadi’s arrangement of Cipriano de Rore’s “Anchor che col partire” gave the players an opportunity to show that composer’s dramatic, theatrical style of writing.

Next were two sonatas by Dario Castello from his “Libro secondo.” The first had notable cello playing by Testori, featuring lyrical sound and shapely pizzicato. The second found Oberlinger sounding clear and assertive.

Puliaev had the stage to himself for Bernardo Pasquini’s “Toccata con lo Scherzo del Cucco.” He had a deliciously light touch and invigorating runs that made for a high impact performance.

The quiet moments were notable in Benedetto Marcello’s Sonata in F Major, Op. 2, No. 12, and contrasted nicely with the fiery conclusion.

The Sonata in G Minor, “Il Pastor Fido” — identified as “genuine plagiarism” by Vivaldi in Oberlinger’s program notes and actually written by Nicolas Chédeville — found all three musicians playing sensitively. The phrasing was attractive, with long, arching lines contrasted with taut, short ones.

A real Vivaldi followed: the Sonata in G Minor, RV43. Testori was persuasive and commanded attention and Puliaev’s accompaniment was apt.

The concert closed with Corelli’s Sonata in D Minor, Op. 5 No. 12, “La Folia,” a work of theme and variations, including some that were train-wreck fast yet superbly executed.

*****

American choreographer Mark Morris first staged Purcell’s opera “Dido and Aeneas” as a “dance opera” in 1989 and it has been a staple of the Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG) ever since. The entire opera is danced on stage with all the singers, principals as well as chorus, performing in the pit with the orchestra.

Strangely enough, many folks like me — that is, people who know and love opera but are not aficionados of dance — learned about this “Dido” because Chicago Opera Theater listed it as among their offerings. This was an odd idea. The performance was a scant 58 minutes (and started more than ten minutes late) and if it were a true opera performance should have been paired with another work. Even though it was sung in English, it was difficult to understand much of the text. While the libretto was printed in the program it was impossible to read along because the theater was extremely dark. (Worse, I was regularly distracted by someone sitting several rows in front of me constantly bending over into the aisle trying to read the program by the light at the foot of his seat.) The singers were squished into the orchestra pit and difficult to see. The two performances were offered on remarkably inconvenient nights of the week: Tuesday and Wednesday.

And perhaps the biggest reason why a dance opera is disappointing: Having it entirely danced makes nuanced performances of the music far more difficult as any rubato must be negotiated not merely by conductor and singer together but must also be incorporated into the dancers’ routines, meaning that certain elements of musical expression will inevitably be lost.

Having said all that, there was a lot to like with this “Dido.” The MMDG Orchestra had 14 members: a dozen standard orchestra strings plus theorbo and harpsichord. Mark Morris served as conductor and coaxed out consistently pleasing sound. The chorus gleamed.

Many of the soloists stood out. Baritone Douglas Williams, who sang the role of Aeneas, offered a resonant and compelling portrayal and powerful singing. Sherezade Panthaki as Belinda had pretty soprano sound. Mezzo-soprano Jamie Van Eyck as both Dido and the Sorceress had some strong moments but also had a distracting vibrato and labored ornaments.

My own shortcomings in dance knowledge meant that I found what happened on stage primarily perplexing. It certainly didn’t help that every one of the dozen dancers were dressed identically, in black sarong-like dresses, save Aeneas who was bare-chested. It was easy to wonder who was who, although I confess that I took a certain pleasure in the fact that “unisex” in this production meant not that women wore trousers but that men wore dresses.

In Chicago Opera Theater news, they have announced its 2016-17 season which has four operas, three of which won’t be at the Harris Theater. Visit chicagooperatheater.org.

The next performance at the Harris Theater features the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center on Thur., Apr. 21. Visit harristheaterchicago.org.