Western classical music has not always been clearly either fish or fowl. And its periods of transition have spawned some of its most intriguing creations.
Four hundred years ago was such a time, as a prevailingly linear and modal style gradually gave way to a more vertically organized and tonally hierarchical music.
Sunday evening Musica Angelica examined the "Birth of the Baroque," in the first of the four-concert Musical Portraiture series at the Getty Center this summer. Thundershowers soaked the courtyard venue, forcing the event into the Harold M. Williams Auditorium and abbreviating series director Robert Winter's preconcert lecture.
Nothing dampened the pointed enthusiasm of the performance, however, or the enduring freshness of classics of dramatic monody (a single melodic line with chordal underpinning) by Emilio de Cavalieri and Claudio Monteverdi. This is music of expressive declamation, intensely concerned with faithful interpretation of the text. As such it is largely syllabic and spontaneous in rhythm, and boldly colored with great harmonic freedom.
Ensembles such as Musica Angelica have done wonders to re-create the sounds and styles of period-specific performance, but it's impossible for the audience to listen with period ears. Still, technological access and cultural integration have made all music contemporary music. Certainly Monteverdi's "Ballet of the Ungrateful Women" seemed a magnificent matter of the moment, immediate in voice and feeling.
The musical portraiture here is not a question of personal characterization but of emotions and archetypes, conveyed with all the techniques of word painting and musical symbolism. Soprano Kris Gould expressed a world of sighing regret as the lead ingrate in the famously poignant climax, joined by Diane Plaster and Anne Desler. Bass Curtis Streetman was the incisively sepulchral Pluto; Christen Herman, the regal Venus; and Catherine Webster, the purposeful Love.
Michael Eagan, his archlute inconsistently amplified, led the small instrumental band in deft accompaniment and sprightly dances. Mariel McEwan's eloquently spare costumes and staging suggested the expectations of the composer's contemporaries, but they also worked with a postmodern ease of reference and affect.
To open there was the second act of Cavalieri's groundbreaking allegory "The Representation of Spirit and Body." This moralizing tale is rather pat dramatically, but musically lavish in effect--noble arioso homilies, quick dialogue, varied choruses and ensembles, offstage echoes and pert instrumental punctuation.
Eagan guided another fluid performance, mercurial in shifts of mood and thoroughly communicative. Tenor Daniel Plaster was the clear, persuasively perplexed Body, and Webster the stouthearted, serenely sung Spirit. Streetman was a swaggering World, and Herman an insinuating Worldly Life, partners in temptation. Desler was the merry Pleasure, Erik Leidal and Paul Cummings her bright-voiced companions, and Gould gave the Guardian Angel radiant dignity.
* The Musical Portraiture series continues July 24 and 31, and Aug. 7, Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Drive, 8 p.m., $22, (323) 655-TKTS.