Review: Baroque Ballet Program Features Live Sung ‘Stabat Mater’

It was the day before the closing of the Metropolitan Opera’s season and Lincoln Center Plaza was packed like my previous rush hour transfer at Times Square. As dusk approached and the chandeliers began to glow, I made my way into, not the Met for the closing of “Der Fliegende Holländer,” but Koch Theater next door. Tonight was part of New York City Ballet’s Here/Now Festival. Included in Program no. 8 of this series was a revival of Ballet-in-Chief, Peter Martin’s “Stabat Mater,” set to the well-known work of Pergolesi by the same name.

The masses that congregated outside the central fountain were now piling into their respective house seats. Amber Wagner next door was packing the house with a Wagner closing night, but things here at the Koch were just as highly anticipated. Resident choreographer, Justin Peck, set to choreograph the Broadway revival of “Carousel,” starring our very own, Renee Fleming, was premiering a new ballet to the original score of Sufjan Stevens. I was no doubt just as excited for this, but I seemed to be the only one to know about the live vocalists three pieces in.

The Openers

Balanchine’s famed quote sounded in my mind with the beginning notes of the New York City Ballet Orchestra: “If you don’t like ballet, you can always close your eyes and listen to the music.”

With the beginnings of music by Geminiani, after Corelli’s, “La Follia,” I rested assured that tonight was at the very least going to be full of world-class music.

The Bel Canto-named ballet “Chiaroscuro” led to yet another baroque compilation of composers, von Biber and Vivaldi. Non-stop movement with undulating spines and hip rolls enveloped moments of impressive turning feats, especially of City Ballet star Joaquin de Luz.

Two intermissions in and it came time for the final baroque piece of the night.

The Stabat Mater

As Maestro Andrew Sill stepped up to the podium, the night’s singers appeared in the pit directly behind him under the spotlight, only their heads visible above the front of the pit.

This ballet first premiered in 1998, with live singers accompanying at every performance. Past performances of the work show a soprano and countertenor coupling, but tonight were American singers Mary Wilson and Meg Bragle, soprano and mezzo, respectively. Both are hailed as experts in the baroque repertoire.

Wilson, a former finalist in the 1999 Met Council auditions has traversed the US in the roles of Strauss, Verdi, and Mozart. She is now faculty at the University of Memphis.

Mezzo-soprano, Bragle, appears to be a specialist in early music. Her bio boasts of almost exclusively oratorio and early opera, on stage and in the studio. And in the year 2017, this very “Stabat Mater” is her bread and butter with many performances of the work already under her belt.

Their careful singing throughout the entire work was appropriately styled; never overbearing, using period ornamentation and singing with touches of straight tone throughout, a common practice in early music.

Unfortunately, the Koch Theater isn’t known for lending acoustic aid to vocalists. Even after the recent renovation that ended the theater’s electronic enhancement crutch, the acoustics failed to impress. The voices were audible but didn’t ring with the same vitality they do next door at the Met and created an unbalance in the overall performance.

Dolorosa,” the 40-minute piece’s opening movement, sets the mournful tone for the hymn which is based on Mary’s suffering during the crucifixion of Jesus. Mary’s pain is amplified through the score’s beautiful use of crunching, lingering disharmonies, that with each resolve climb to yet another tonal disturbance that itches for absolution.

The proscenium’s golden covering rose to unveil a small set of ruins; steps leading up to dismantled columns and a headless, stone angel, ravaged by the sands of time.

Six dancers, posed on the structure, all eventually made their way down to the stage; the women in flowing, sheer, empire waist dresses and the men sporting white shirts and knickers.

Each of the City Ballet dancers impressed technically with a standout performance by Joseph Gordon, who took the religious text to a higher level, releasing himself as if praying to the heavens with each arabesque.

The ballet ended not on the agitated, presto finale of “Amen” but moments before in “Quando corpus morietur”(As my body decays). With the orchestra and voices slowly slipping quietly into nothing as though to say their last farewells.

From pit to stage, the singers happily took their bows with the corps of soloists with many recurring curtain calls.

The Grand Finale

Luckily, what followed was now the world premiere of the Peck and Stevens duo, “The Decaloque”; the night’s, and possibly festival’s, crowning achievement.

The Peck corps was dressed in true Balanchine fashion of rehearsal clothes in tones of gray, designed by the choreographer himself. “What came first, the music or the dance?” was the nagging question as the dancers were the personification of pianist Susan Walters, whose playing just outside the proscenium on stage right was as much a star of the new creation as the dancers, Justin Peck and Sufjan Stevens.

Regardless of your preferred artistic medium, the Peck/Stevens collaboration is a win for contemporary music and dance and is worth a visit on the remaining dates: May 14, 18, 20.

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About the Author

James Monroe Števko

Born in Houston, James began studying music at an early age, but it wasn’t until college that he first saw ballet. After pursuing music education, he decided instead to earn his BFA in Theatre from NIU while on scholarship. He was quickly offered a traineeship with Milwaukee Ballet where he performed in Sleeping Beauty and Nutcracker. Since then, James has performed with Radio City Music, The Metropolitan Opera in Un Ballo in Maschera, as Enoch Jr. in Carousel with the Houston Grand Opera, the Muny in St. Louis in The King and I, 7 productions with The Lyric Opera of Chicago, Cats at the Paramount Theatre, and RPM Productions. He has also performed alongside Katy Perry at the Met gala. He also loves to travel and blogs about his adventures.

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