Love hurts in rare Newberry Consort misfire with Héloïse and Abélard program

Sat Feb 17, 2018 at 10:46 am

By Tim Sawyier

 The current Newberry Consort season might well have been inspired by the Duke Orsino’s famous opening line of Twelfth Night: “If music be the food of love, play on.” Last November the ensemble explored 16th-century Sephardic songs in a program dubbed “Sacred Love: Songs of the Sephardim.” Valentine’s Day was slightly extended into the weekend as the durable Chicago group turned its attention to even earlier music in “Forbidden Love: The Passion of Héloïse and Abélard.”

Newberry Consort productions have been consistently excellent in recent seasons, with adept scholarship infusing devoted musicianship to bring to life not just the music but also the Zeitgeist of bygone epochs. Friday night’s program at the Newberry Library’s Ruggles Hall, however, fell somewhat flat by comparison.

Héloïse d’Argenteuil and Pierre Abélard are the storied lovers of medieval France. Both were impressive figures in their own rights—Héloïse a scholarly writer and ultimately an abbess, and Abélard a philosopher and theologian. Yet they have become known to history primarily through their epistolary documentation of their torrid 18-month affair. The Newberry program comprised music of the lovers’ own time and the two centuries that followed, with spoken excerpts from their correspondence interspersed throughout.

Friday’s performance called for a quartet of instrumentalists: Newberry co-director David Douglass and Allison Monroe on vielles and rebecs, Christa Patton on harp and winds, and Charles Metz on the rarely heard organetto. All of these period instruments play in a relatively high register and do not project well, and from the opening Machaut selection this group sounded anemic Friday night. Indeed the selections that fared best were those accompanied by harp, primarily because the fleshed out harmonies had greater sonic presence.

It was intriguing to observe the organetto, a small bellows organ that sits in its player’s lap and is probably most familiar from Renaissance images of musical cherubs. However, its weak, airy timbre and unorthodox intonation quickly grew grating, leaving the impression that some ancient instruments are better seen than heard. Douglass’s vielle broke while warming up for the performance, and he wound up performing on a modern viola. He adeptly handled the change, and the more robust sonority provided much needed contrast to the lightweight instrumental band.

Soprano Ellen Hargis—Newberry’s other co-founder—and tenor Aaron Sheehan performed the bulk of the performance’s vocal contributions. Sheehan’s fluency in this early repertoire was apparent throughout, his appealing, lithe timbre a consistent pleasure to hear, particularly in the closing “En attendant, esperance conforte” of Senleches (fl. 1378-1395). Hargis is a consistently solid vocalist on Newberry programs, but on Friday the sparse instrumental accompaniment left her voice exposed and sounding strained and unsupported, particularly in the higher register. As always with Newberry it is hard to impugn the academic decisions the Consort made in assembling the evening’s repertoire, but Friday night proved that authenticity isn’t necessarily easy on the ears.

Baritone Jeffrey Strauss and actress Helena Scholz-Carlson were cast as the medieval lovers. Small tables stacked with books were placed at either side of the stage, and Strauss and Scholz-Carlson spent the majority of the evening at these makeshift writing desks taking turns reading extracts from Héloïse and Abélard’s letters.

Strauss leant his warm baritone to a handful of selections, and made the stronger actor of the pair. Scholz-Carlson looked the part of the young academic Héloïse, though one could have guessed from her delivery that she is indeed an undergraduate theater major. Both were garbed in convincing costumes by Meriem Bahri, but the staging was rather static and uninventive; the pair simply sat at their respective tables until the very end of the performance, when Strauss walked over to join Scholz-Carlson.

Shawn Keener’s visual projections again proved an enormous asset to Newberry’s endeavor, with engaging images of the time projected along with the lyrics in translation. As Keener conveyed during some pre-concert remarks, there is a dearth of visual material about Héloïse and Abélard, so she had to “fudge” a little in selecting images.

One got the sense that the whole program needed a fair amount of “fudging” to make it come off at all, and while the concept was indeed promising, the overall execution left something to be desired.

“Forbidden Love: The Passion of Héloïse and Abélard” will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday at the Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago, and 3 p.m. Sunday at Galvin Recital Hall at Northwestern University.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Love hurts in rare Newberry Consort misfire with Héloïse and Abélard program”

  1. Posted Feb 28, 2018 at 2:55 pm by Judith Kolata

    I found the performance engaging and delightful. I thought they managed all the various media, instruments and voices masterfully.
    I loved it.

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