Last night I attended the first performance of “The Heirs of Tantalus” presented by Salon/Sanctuary Concerts, a relatively new organization that puts on early music events in New York City. I had attended one of their concerts last year – a music/dance program starring countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo that was really wonderful – but all their other events last season posed calendar conflicts for me, so this as my first return.
The location was a novelty for me – The Broad Street Ballroom, at 41 Broad Street. I think this is a former bank building. The ground floor space has the kind of high ceilings and ornate columns typical of old bank buildings in New York. The building has been transformed to various uses, apparently, including a school and residences, but this large ground floor space is an auditorium without fixed seating or stage. Platforms at the east end of the room served for a stage, and chairs were arrayed in rows. The acoustics were good for the music, not so good for speech, necessitating the actors wearing head-sets for amplification that was a bit startling, since the actors were moving about the room but the sound was coming from large speakers suspended from the ceiling above the stage area.
Salon/Sanctuary does not yet totally have their act together in terms of the logistics of presenting an event like this. The entrance seemed a bit disorganized, and they did not beginning admitting audience members until about 20 minutes before the advertised showtime. Ushers did not seem familiar with their task, and the entry was confusing for somebody who bought a ticket in advance online. They also need to figure out how to start their shows on time. The same problems of amateurism afflicted the printed program book, which illogically placed cast biographies before the texts and translations for the musical numbers, failed to mention that the program would be in two acts with an intermission, and failed to indicate who composed each of the numbers. The program page indicated that the music was drawn from works by Handel, Monteverdi, and Alessandro Scarlatti, and a lengthy essay mentioned operas by Monteverdi and Handel and a Handel cantata, but made no mention of Scarlatti. While one could easily hypothesize which pieces were by Monteverdi, an early Baroque composer, and some of the other numbers seemed characteristically Handelian, the failure to identify what was by Scarlatti was unfortunate, as his music would sound similar to a Handel cantata from that composer’s early period when he was living in Italy or the early English years when his production focused on Italian opera. In any rate, it is amateurish not to make these identifications in the program. Furthermore, the texts and translations were in small print that was difficulty to follow in the dimly lit hall, and one text was misplaced in terms of the performance sequence. More care in the future would be advisable.
All that said, the musical performances were very good for the most part. Soprano Jessica Gould’s intonation was occasionally suspect, and she took some time to find the volume necessary to be heard clearly over the instrumental ensemble, but once that was accomplished her renditions of the music were most enjoyable and dramatic. Countertenor Jose Lemos is a real discovery. I love the countertenor voice and am delighted to add another to my list of excellent countertenors. He handled the florid music with great skill and communicated real passion. Bravo! The instrumental ensemble, members of The Sebastians Chamber Players led by Jory Vinikour at the harpsichord, were excellent in every respect, producing a bright, focused sound and playing with great incisiveness and sensitivity to the changing moods of the music.
The production was conceived as an exposition of the overlapping plots of Monteverdi’s “The Coronation of Poppea” and Handel’s “Agrippina” using arias and duets (from those and other works) interspersed with translations of verses by Aeschylus, Europides and Suetonius, arranged to illustrate thematic links between these history-based plots and the mythological stories of the Greek House of Atreus, descended from Tantalus and involved in the mythology of the Trojan War and its aftermath. Three actors, Steven Rattazzi, Ethan Peck, and Florencia Lozano, presented the spoken interludes between musical numbers. They moved about the hall, walking across and aisles and in the front and back, spotlighted when they spoke and otherwise out of view. I had the feeling that they could have used much more rehearsal – especially for their unison recitations, which were a bit uncoordinated. At times it seemed as if they were reading material with which they were not intimately familiar, resulting in some peculiar line breaks and odd emphases. This was more of a problem with Rattazzi and Lozano. Mr. Peck, unlike the others, appeared to have memorized a large portion of his text and went beyond reading to acting, which was much more effective. The others clung more to their sheaves of paper and too often sounded like they were reading rather than acting. Perhaps by the second performance on Saturday this will be less of a problem. Erica Gould directed the stage action, and I had the sense that more time was spent on rehearing how they would move about — which seemed to go very smoothly — than with how they would deliver their lines.
Viewed overall, I thought it was a successful evening of early music, worth attending. It will certainly inspire me to search out recordings by Mr. Lemos, if such exist, and to check out available video recordings of Mr. Peck’s work. (He is the grandson of actor Gregory Peck, and I was very impressed by his presence, voice, and acting ability.) This year’s Salon/Sanctuary program line-up looks very promising, and I may actually be able to get to some of the productions. I hope their logistical performance will improve as they gain experience.