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1.7.06

Ground

Brian Cummings in the role of Him, Elizabeth Baber in the role of Her, Ground, Ignoti Dei Opera, 2006, photo by Greg McLeskeyAfter taking a big risk on Cavalli's La Didone earlier this summer, Ignoti Dei Opera has made another adventurous production, one with broader musical appeal. Ground, in performance this weekend at Baltimore Theater Project, weaves together a series of unrelated vocal and instrumental pieces from 17th-century Italy to make a work of theater. The organizing principle is that most of the pieces, not all and each one not completely, are based on repeating bass patterns, whence the title. These sorts of ostinato pieces are so hypnotic, so static harmonically but pulsating with rhythmic variation, that they invite visual diversion, either imagined in the listener's mind or, as here, provided by the director (Ignoti Dei artistic director Timothy Nelson) and lighting and set designer (Kel Millionie). This was a collaborative project, so it is inappropriate to speak of an author.

Would anyone, myself certainly included, ever think that a group of young performers, many of them graduates from Peabody and other leading early music conservatory programs, could make Baroque music cool? Yet here is Ignoti Dei creating a theater piece with a contemporary story, in a cutting-edge theater space in a renovated townhouse in downtown Baltimore, that uses the cyclical music of the 17th century. The idea, I admit, borders on the quixotic, to take virtuosic vocal chamber music, madrigals and other difficult pieces, and make people sing it while accomplishing choreography and staging. The two singers -- countertenor Brian Cummings (Him) and soprano Elizabeth Baber (Her) -- do their best, with some minor difficulties in the more complicated parts, like rolling themselves up in the same piece of cloth on the floor, but for the most part they did very well.

The music is perfectly suited, pieces for one or two treble voices, here sung by countertenor and soprano and acting out a ritualized drama of gesture, a couple meeting, falling in love, having a child, encountering illness and death, and beginning again. In this quintessential Baroque style -- two trebles and continuo, also the format of the trio sonata -- the two twin voices clash, soar together, play in counterpoint, slash one another with dissonance, and then dissolve into unison, an ideal metaphor for the trials and ultimate, inevitable union of love. The texts, however, do not work perfectly for the story, which is why incomplete translations are given in the program and even less is related in the supertitles, where a few words in Italian and English, sometimes set in motion, are combined with images. Although it was sometimes distracting to hear unrelated words, for the most part the audience can let the music mold itself to the story on the stage.

Of the musical selections, the pieces by Claudio Monteverdi, not surprisingly, stand out. He was the Bach, the Mozart, the Beethoven -- whatever -- of his age, and I rarely find any piece by him to be anything but alluring. In Ground, there are two exceptional pieces, Zefiro torna from Monteverdi's ninth book of madrigals (text by Rinuccini, originally for two tenors), which signals the birth of love and is heard as the first and last selection, and the final duet of L'Incoronazione di Poppea -- Pur ti miro, pur ti godo, which also partially repeats, a sort of tag for the love between Him and Her. If Monteverdi (or another composer -- the question of authorship of this opera is complicated) can make us believe with this music that Poppea and Nerone are destined to be together, we can believe that anyone's love is true. Both singers also performed O come sei gentile, caro augellino from Monteverdi's seventh book of madrigals (text by Guarini, for two sopranos). The fact that this piece is about a singer addressing a bird ("How kind you are, beloved songbird"), not lovers addressing one another, matters little.

The other musical selections -- Benedetto Ferrari, Tarquinio Merula, Luigi Rossi, Francesco Cavalli, and others -- were all beautiful, some with dance-like rhythmic pulse, others with languorous, arching vocal lines. Particularly interesting and practically unknown works include La Barchetta Passaggiera by a composer listed only as Il Fasolo (the two voices depict a couple arguing) and Merula's Hor ch'è tempo di dormire (a mother trying to rock her baby to sleep). In the latter piece, the insistent repeated semitone of the viola da gamba line represents the baby's wailing, while in the former, it is the occasional sliding complaints of the violin that signalled that the fight has awakened the baby. It was not all perfect with the three instrumentalists seated on a pedestal at the back of the stage, but all players gave attractive performances (Daniel Boothe, violin; Daniel Rippe, viola da gamba; and Charles Weaver, lute and guitar), including an improvised "jam" on a ground bass at the end of intermission. Elizabeth Baber and Brian Cummings both sang with great sensitivity and agility, and their voices matched one another quite well.

The Ignoti Dei look (lights and sets by Kel Millionie) is part Robert Wilson -- colored lights, stasis, ritual gesture -- and part Meredith Monk -- bare stage, minimal props, colorless costumes. With concern for a small budget, the few pieces on the stage were surprisingly effective, including the sole flat that is intentionally knocked down to the floor at one point, to make a pavement under dripping rain. Remaining performances of Ignoti Dei Opera's Ground are this evening (July 1, 8 pm) and tomorrow afternoon (July 2, 3 pm) at Baltimore Theater Project. There was not much of a crowd last night, so please get yourself up to Baltimore if you can. It is a visually intriguing and musically lovely work, not quite like anything else you might have the chance to experience.

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