The Oratorio Society had its turn in the Kennedy Center's Parisan Festival last night. Under the direction of Robert Shafer, the chorus and soloists gave the U.S. premieres of an early chorus by Berlioz and a "Credo," by Donizetti. In between there was an inane Missa Brevis by Bellini and a one-movement sinfonia for nine woodwinds by Donizetti.
The Berlioz, written when the composer was 19 and living in Rome on his prize winnings, is a clear forerunner of much that was to come later in choral usage, harmonic ideas, and orchestral texture. It is a brief setting about the birth of a savior, a subject Berlioz was to ennoble in his "L'enfance du Christ."
The Donizetti sinfonia is a charming bit. Pairs of horns, bassoons, oboes, clarinets and a single flute make bright, lovely sounds.
But the Bellini music for a "Kyrie" and "Gloria," while not brief, is puerile beyond belief. Basic harmony and traditional formulas jostle about at such length that you have to be grateful the composer did not set the entire Mass text. There are some mildly alluring solos and duets, mostly for soprano and tenor. In these, Linda Zobhby sang with radiant beauty of tone and style, closely matched by Gene Tucker. Mezzo Rose Taylor and baritone David Evitts handled their elememtary assignments with all that was called for.
The Donizetti music for the Creed was barely an improvement, and at times, as at the line, "Et resurrexit tertia die," you might have thought Donizetti was joking if you did not know better.
Shafer conducted with notable musicianship, doing his best to give the music what no one can gite it: any substance or value. If this Bellini and Donizetti was thought vital to the Parisan Festival, it was a serious error in judgment. There was few on hand to sit it out.