A Baroque Masterpiece

Last Friday, the Claire Trevor School of the Arts put on an exciting production of Pergolesi’s “Stabat Mater,” featuring members of the UC Irvine Symphony, led by Dr. Stephen Tucker, in collaboration with MFA students Melissa McCann, soprano, and G. Thomas Allen, countertenor, and Dr. Darryl Taylor as artistic director.

Through a sequence of Latin verses written by Jacobus de Benedictis, “Stabat Mater” explores the sorrow of the Virgin Mary as she beholds the cross onto which her son hangs. Written by Italian composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736), this composition dates back to 1736 and was written in the final weeks of his life. One of Pergolesi’s most popular works, this oratorio — a genre similar in structure to opera, though not staged and with a sacred focus — is composed of 12 movements centered on the grief of Mary and a prayer to her.

An outrageous turnout filled Winifred Smith Hall. To avoid turning people away, the performance was delayed fifteen minutes as extra chairs were placed on stage for the forty-some odd displaced patrons searching in vain for seats. After a humorous preamble given by conductor Dr. Stephen Tucker, the night finally began.

The first movement, perhaps the most famous, is a haunting, dissonant duet between the singers, and serves to highlight the anguish felt by Mary. The orchestral intro set the mood with a scant few out of tune moments among the violins. The balance between the orchestra and soloists was impeccable, neither one drowning out the other. The beautiful suspensions from the soloists were performed with wonderful intonation as both singers were suitably in character.

The orchestra, a fourteen-member string ensemble picked from the UCI Symphony along with two continuo players, MFA student Anson Brown, lute, and Stephen Shaw-Naar, organ, made up the baroque ensemble accompanying the two soloists. The orchestra was more than equal to the challenge of supporting the two singers, adroitly responding to the expressive conducting of Dr. Tucker. At no point did they swallow the soloists, a major accomplishment considering the intimacy of the venue.

Allen demonstrated his fine breath control and evenness of range from top to bottom, especially in the melismatic singing of the eighth movement. Allen’s diction was mostly good, though some of his consonants were decidedly more aspirate than is perhaps appropriate for the Italian-based Latin in which the piece is written. Overall, he was able to keep a nice ring in his tone and project clearly over the orchestra, even when the range of the song required him to dip lower into his range, a place much harder to project especially for the countertenor voice.

McCann also proved to be in top form for the night, singing beautifully, with a great sense of line and legato. Her trills, an important element of baroque ornamentation, were on point and well defined. The large challenge of the night, however, proved to be one of stamina. Singing in a somewhat foreign style for forty minutes straight, as is required by this piece, is a formidable test. While McCann finished the night in fine voice, some fatigue was evidenced in the last movements as she allowed a few slides to creep in on larger descending intervals.

After a triumphant final “Amen” section, in which the performers celebrated an ascent to heaven, the audience rose to their feet in a richly deserved standing ovation, and McCann, Allen, and Dr. Tucker were called back for two extra curtain calls.

Following the performance, artistic director Dr. Taylor commented on the importance of the performance, calling the work a masterpiece of vocal literature and a “test of endurance as well as vocal dexterity.” When asked for thoughts on how the performance had turned out, he only smiled and said, “I think our students were equal to the task.”

Dr. Tucker seemed to agree with Dr. Taylor on the success of the night, speaking of some of the challenges involved in putting on such a large work. He took a moment to reflect on the overwhelming turnout and overall achievement of the combined musicians, stating “this was a fantastic night for UCI, especially Vocal Arts. It’s a sign of what we can do.”