Seraphic Fire makes a fascinating journey into the French Baroque

By Lawrence Budmen

Seraphic Fire performed music of Rameau and Mondonville Thursday night at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Miami.

Music of the French Baroque is too rarely heard on this side of the pond. Rhythmically and harmonically adventurous for its era, these Gallic scores differ greatly from the works of their Italian and German counterparts. 

Patrick Quigley opened Seraphic Fire’s season with “Gods and Mortals,” a program of two masterpieces that span the reign of King Louis XV on Thursday night at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Miami.

The Gallic grand motet was more related to opera in its dramatic and musical expression than the sacred motets of Palestrina. Such operatic elements were clearly manifest in Dominus regnavit by Jean-Joseph de Mondonville (1711-1782).

The stately orchestral introduction leads to an opening chorus that explores the full spectrum of choral sound. The 13-voice choir resounded magnificently in the ornate sanctuary with the lower voices adding weight and body to the aural perspective.

A solemn male trio, sung with elegance by Doug Dodson, Aaron Cates and Jonathan Woody, precedes the “Parata sedes.” Sopranos Molly Quinn and Chelsea Helm managed both the grace and echo-like impetus of the duet’s rhythmic curves. The gathering storm of “Elevaverunt flumina” emerges in pictorial music far ahead of its time. Artistic director Quigley whipped up an instrumental and vocal tempest while maintaining nuanced dynamics and transparent textures.

The vibrato-less purity and striking lightness of Rebecca Myers’ soprano captured the lithe airiness of  “Testimonia tua.” All of this impressive singing was merely a prelude the grandeur of the final “Gloria Patri.” The full vocal complement sang with rapid articulation and clarity, with individual strands precise. Quigley and his singers and 15-player orchestra were awarded thunderous and prolonged applause at the majestic conclusion of Mondonville’s opus.

After a lengthy career as an organist, Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) turned to creating operas. Castor et Pollux, his third opera, was greatly advanced from the more traditional “tragedie en musique” of Jean-Baptiste Lully which had dominated French stages. His original 1737 version was attacked by traditionalists and Rameau revised the work in 1754, dropping the original Prologue and, in many ways, making the work conform to more conventional fare of the time. 

The opera’s story concerns the title brothers—one mortal (Castor) and the other divine (Pollux). Castor has been killed in battle. Both have loved Télaïre but it is Castor whose love she has returned. Pollux decides to rescue his brother from the underworld and exchange places with him so Castor can be reunited with his beloved. Through the intercession of the gods, both achieve immortal status.

Rameau’s concept veered more toward music drama than merely a series of ornamental arias and dance sequences. Hector Berlioz considered Télaïre’s aria from this score “the sublimest conception of dramatic music.” In many ways, Rameau’s path-breaking view of theatrical drama forms a direct line to Berlioz’s “Les Troyens.”

Quigley presented the Prologue and excerpts from the five-act opera in a restored edition by P. Wesley Roy, Seraphic Fire’s University of Miami conducting fellow.

Unrelated to the opera’s main story, the Prologue celebrates the end of the War of Polish Succession which was timely in the early eighteenth century. Minerve and Venus are able to convince Mars to adopt peace to general celebration.  Sparkling arias and dances mark this mini-pageant. Quigley drew spirited and precise articulation from his ensemble in the overture.  

Nola Richardson conveyed both the dramatic projection and agility of Minerve’s utterances. In no small measure, James Reese was the star of this presentation in the pivotal role of L’amour. His impressive tenor could deliver stentorian declamation and shape a lyrical line in exquisite tones. Steven Eddy’s hearty bass resounded in Mars’ proclamations. Quinn’s silvery top range conveyed goddess-like quaities as Venus.

The initial “Chorus of the Spartans” at Castor’s funeral is a powerful lament. Beautifully coordinated by Quigley, the corporate forces conveyed the depth of tragedy. 

Télaïre’s aria “Tristes, apprěts” is a full-fledged dramatic scena. Myers’ wide range and emotive projection took full measure of Rameau’s portrait of despair. Woody’s burnished baritone was fully equal to Pollux’s interjections in duos and ensembles. Helm and Myers chased away the furies and demons that blocked Pollux’s entry to the underworld in intensely vocalized outbursts.

Cates’ light tenor perfectly encompassed Castor’s longing for peace. In the Elysian fields, the “Chorus of the Happy Spirits” emerged aristocratic, and the joyous final chorus was full voiced and exciting with Quigley firing up his singers.

Throughout the evening, the orchestral playing was outstanding. Special honors go to flutists Joe Monticello and Jennifer Grim, bassoonist Anna Lee March and oboists David Dickey and Emily Ostrom for solos and obbligato accompaniment.

Rameau’s opera is a masterpiece and, hopefully, this will not be the only local premiere of this important repertoire by Quigley and his gifted singers.

There are three remaining opportunities to hear this unique program.

Seraphic Fire repeats the program 8 p.m. Friday at Church of the Little Flower in Coral Gables, 7:30 p.m. Saturday at All Saints Episcopal Church in Fort Lauderdale and 4 p.m. Sunday at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.

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Fri Nov 3, 2023
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