The French baroque cantata might be more popular if people began to think of it as condensed opera. Properly done, as it was last night in the Smithsonian's Hall of Musical Instruments, it can squeeze a whole opera into 10 or 15 minutes. It is usually composed for one singer with a handful of instruments. Performing it is intense, hard work, but the musical rewards are considerable.

In last night's performance with the Smithsonian Chamber Players, soprano Ann Monoyios gave memorable interpretations of two of the greatest themes in the operatic repertoire: Medea and Orpheus. The music was by Louis-Nicolas Cle'rambault, a genius at composing dramatic miniatures if his "Me'de'e" and "Orphe'e" are a fair sample. The emotions ranged from desolation to triumph (in two very different flavors), and there was one item -- Medea's spooky invocation of the powers of Hell -- that defies description, in form as well as content. It was somewhere between a recitative and a da capo aria, with a vigorous, colorful instrumental accompaniment, and it had the kind of spine-chilling tension you don't expect in French baroque music.

The program also included some remarkable music for two bass violas, well-played by Kenneth Slowik and Christopher Krueger -- most notably a brilliant, colorful suite by Antoine Forqueray. The program will be repeated tonight.