French baroque ensemble Le Poème Harmonique brings early music to life

Le Poème Harmonique. (Matt Murphy)
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You can make all the jokes you want about the costumes and the lutes all feeling a bit Ren Faire, but New York is in the midst of an (or, another) historical performance revival, and the music is fantastic.

It's worth noting that many of the institutions currently leading this revival (the Brooklyn Academy of Music for example, or Le Poisson Rouge) are otherwise spaces that mostly devote themselves to programming contemporary performance. The Miller Theatre in Morningside Heights is no exception. Last night, Miller kicked off its 2012-13 season with a staged concert by the French early music ensemble Le Poème Harmonique, giving lovers of baroque music and opera a reason to celebrate.

The program, entitled Venezia: from the Streets to the Palaces, is billed as the group’s “largest New York production to date,” and offers an opportunity for New Yorkers to get to know one of Europe’s most exciting early music ensembles on intimate terms.

Founded in 1998 by the lutenist Vincent Dumestre, the group has garnered attention in recent years for its exciting interpretations of early modern music, and for its commitment to exploring this repertoire’s relationship with the practices and conventions of seventeenth-century theater. Many of the group’s past projects have featured mise-en-scène by Venezia’s stage director Benjamin Lazar and have been marked by a visual luxury that would have been typical during the 1600s. (For examples, you can check out YouTube clips from LPH’s recent collaborations with Lazar here and here.)

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Venezia, however, is performed by a conductorless ensemble of four singers and six instrumentalists on a bare stage and without historical costumes or makeup. Its major visual accompaniments are soft candlelight and the stage gestures of the performers as they describe the sung lyrics. Lazar studied seventeenth-century déclamation with the American-born, French-expatriated director and writer Eugène Green, and his productions are marked by a spellbinding attention to the movements of hands. Here, as in his previous LPH collaborations, the performers use gesture to signal hauntingly across a row of tiny downstage candle flames, enticing the listener into the musical drama.

As its title suggests, the evening’s repertoire consists mostly in music by Venetian composers, including Claudio Monteverdi and a handful of lesser-knowns: Dario Castello, Francesco Manelli, and Benedetto Ferrari. (A number of other works on the program have more uncertain provenance.) The selections range across a variety of moods and musical forms. Monteverdi’s pomp and courtly gravity are set against serenades to peasant girls and other folk materials. Rhetorical recitatives and laments offset scenes of clowning, wistful madrigals, and even an Aria alla napolitana—one of the evening’s many highlights—that draws influence from the flamenco-like jácara dance form, complete with clacking castanets.

The musical talents on display here are generally impressive: a Sonata Concertate in Stil Moderno by Castello offers the instrumental team an opportunity to shine, with particularly fine ornamental flourishes from violinist Johannes Frisch. The evening’s vocalists are only slightly more uneven here than has been the case with other LPH productions I’ve seen in the past: some of these performers portray Lazar’s otherworldly choreography more convincingly than others, and those who manage the gestures effectively are sometimes weaker vocally. In the bass Geoffroy Buffière, however, the two worlds—gestural and vocal, musical and theatrical—combine harmoniously.

'Venezia: from the Streets to the Palaces' is playing at the Miller Theatre at Columbia University, 2960 Broadway, until Friday, September 14. Tickets are $40 to $45 and can be purchased by calling 212-854-7799, or visiting the Miller Theatre here here. Top right photo shows, from left to right, Claire Lefilliâtre, Serge Goubioud, Jan Van Elsacker, and Geoffroy Buffière; above left photo of Vincent Dumestre; all photos by Matt Murphy, courtesy Miller Theatre.