Music Review : 'Herod and the Innocents': Subtle Yet Clumsy

Liturgical drama has not been a really hot ticket since the Middle Ages, so the sparse audience at Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena on Monday evening was perhaps understandable. There, New York's Ensemble for Early Music, pretender to the sadly vacant throne of Noah Greenberg and the New York Pro Musica, offered director Frederick Renz's view of "Herod and the Innocents."

This was a production marked by both sophistication and silliness, as if Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland and the Mensa gang decided to do a show . . . in Latin.

There was wonderful attention to physical detail, as in the expressive use of the hands, consistently maintained even in characters peripheral to the action. The fluid mime conveyed both ritual elaboration and natural emotion.

Then against this pattern of subtle, carefully gauged posture and movement, there were startling incongruities such as the corny and clumsy drill team maneuvers during the Te Deum. Stage director Philip Burton and the parading cast of 19 no doubt intended to indicate spacious ceremony, but achieved only inadvertent slapstick in the confines of the Ambassador forestage. At least they didn't actually form letters.

"Herod and the Innocents," a.k.a. "The Play of Herod," is a remarkably taut, potentially powerful interpretation of the biblical stories of the shepherds and the three kings worshiping the Christ-child in the manger, and King Herod's jealous rage and subsequent massacre of the children of Bethlehem. The early-music movement has produced many revivals of the piece, and at least three recordings.

In this case, the music--much in plainsong style, with some three-part settings and interpolated motets and carols--was wanly projected. The ensemble sounded best in units large and small, rather bland but cohesive and fluent. The three traveling kings--Paul Guttry, David Shapero and Paul Shipper--had the best tunes and the most engaging duties.

Individually, though, the voices proved generally small, and there was no effort toward vocal characterization. Peter Becker's Herod, for example, could hardly be heard over the thin accompaniment, and brought little menace or passion to his music. Archangel David Fry exuded regal restraint in the most opulent costume of all, but sounded strained in introducing the Innocents.

Boys' voices were missed in this all-male cast, with reedy countertenors poor substitutes. Some of the bearded Innocents at the luridly staged slaughter--red light, thunder sheet and falsetto screams--were bigger than the attacking army of two.

Grant Herreid, John Loose and Thomas Zajac played a wide variety of instruments with sympathy and grace, if not complete technical authority in all cases, and entered easily into the action themselves.

The set and props were simple but effective, with evocative lighting by Robert Graham Small. Richard Guier designed the costumes, convincingly rustic for the shepherds, more suggestive of polyester than silk for the kings and Herod and his court.

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