Reinvigorated Vespers

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Leading a massive force of more than 200 singers and a chamber orchestra, Robert Shafer made the unbelievable believable at Strathmore on Thursday night. Shafer combined his City Choir of Washington (in its inaugural season) with the Shenandoah Conservatory Choir, the Children's Chorus of Washington and the Blue Ridge Choristers in a memorable virtuosic performance of Claudio Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610.

Since we don't know how many performers Monteverdi envisioned for his music four centuries ago, Shafer "designed" his mammoth version to be heard in a large concert hall such as Strathmore, increasing the audibility by resorting to full-throated modern, rather than period, instruments. The composer wrote it, after all, for the trendy Italian ducal court of Mantua, which thrived on arts spectaculars; only three years earlier, Monteverdi's "Orfeo" -- the first major opera in history -- had been given there.

Most impressive on Thursday was how beautifully and effectively Shafer coordinated four choruses -- spread out on the stage and balconies -- seven vocal soloists and an orchestra with excellent ensemble work and a sense of clarity despite Monteverdi's ever-fluctuating solo and choral textures. And diction was surprisingly precise -- an all-important factor considering Monteverdi's concentration on the emotional expression of individual words, conveyed dramatically by the huge chorus.

No less commendable were the soloists Laura Lewis, Danielle Talamantes, Robert Baker, Michael Forest, Robert Petillo, James Shaffran and Gary Poster. Repeatedly, their amazing skill shone through in lengthy melodic embellishments of crucial words, cluing us in on the elaborate ornaments Monteverdi's singers might once have improvised on the spot.

-- Cecelia Porter

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