Wednesday, March 9, 2011


Prague Castle
March 6
St. Lawrence Church
March 4

Putting some pizazz in Moliere.

There are times when Prague can seem like Baroque heaven, offering so much early music that you need wings to keep up with it all. Two concerts over the weekend provided not only divine listening, but a reminder of how many different forms and variations the genre encompasses.

Collegium Marianum continued its rewarding collaboration with French artists on Sunday, teaming with actors Bastien Ossat and Clotilde Daniault for an evening of comedic scenes from Molière spliced into a musical program of Lully and Charpentier. The setting was the Ball Game Hall of Prague Castle, a great facility for aristocratic sports in the 17th century, but a terrible modern-day concert hall. Long, boxy and sterile, it offers about 10 rows of good seating. Beyond that, the acoustics are a disaster and the band seems remote, a miniature wind-up diorama at the far end of a giant shoebox.

But the music was outstanding, with the ensemble turning in its usual blend of spirited interpretation and technical expertise. Much of French Baroque, particularly the work of Lully and Charpentier, is rooted in song and dance, and the sound is bright and energetic. A variety of percussion instruments picked up the pace even more, so that the closing piece, selections from Lully’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, sounded like a 17th-century garden party in full swing.

The setting made it hard to appreciate the fine points of the playing, which is one of the hallmarks of Collegium Marianum. But even at a distance, the ensemble’s principal flutist and artistic director, Jana Semerádová, was impressive – running the group, as usual, playing several different flutes and percussion instruments, and occasionally acting in the comedy skits. As if all that weren’t enough, her French is excellent, too.

The acting was a lively version of the mannered face-the-audience Baroque style, with Daniault practically crawling on top of Ossat in a scene from Les femmes savantes. Both actors seemed quite good and highly skilled in the genre – but oddly, their three scenes did not elicit a single laugh from the audience. Communication didn’t seem to be a problem; the actors were practically yelling to compensate for the poor acoustics, and helpful flat screens along one side of the hall provided Czech subtitles. This reviewer, sadly lacking in both French and Czech language skills, is at a loss to explain why the comedy skits fell flat.

On Friday night, an entirely different style of Baroque packed St. Lawrence Church, where a stripped-down Collegium 1704 ensemble – five instruments and a singer – reprised several Henry Purcell favorites, along with selections from Matthew Locke and William Lawes. The music was more somber, in keeping with its primarily spiritual orientation, inspirational in tone and occasionally spellbinding, especially Purcell’s captivating vocal lines.

Chapel-sized St. Lawrence is a sweet place to hear chamber music, and the ensemble improved on the acoustics by moving off the stage and onto the floor. That cut the seating a bit, but gave the music a deep bottom and exceptionally warm resonance. With lush violins carrying most of the melodies and crisp harpsichord passages bridging the selections, the sound was the aural equivalent of the golden hour before sundown, when everything is bathed in a soft, warm glow.

The setting was also good for Markéta Cukrová’s voice, which sounded rich and full, nicely balanced with the instruments. If her diction was less than perfect in English, her emotional expression more than made up for it, especially on an achingly beautiful rendition of Purcell’s Bess of Bedlam.

Taken together, the concerts were a perfect kickoff for the Lenten season – the carnival atmosphere on Sunday night presaging Ash Wednesday, and the spiritual reflections of Friday night setting a meditative, even penitential tone for the 40 days of Lent. If their quality is any indication, the ensembles’ Easter concerts should be glorious.

For a schedule of upcoming performances:

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