Sometimes the mission of the Folger Consort, to present historically informed performances of early music, overlaps with the specialization of its host institution, the Folger Shakespeare Library. Over the years, the ensemble has collaborated with actor Derek Jacobi and stage director Richard Clifford to present adaptations of the plays of Shakespeare, combining excerpts of the play with appropriate music. After their version of “The Tempest” in 2010, these artists reunited for a program of “The Merchant of Venice,” heard Friday night at the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda.
Three traditions came into play in the choice of music, including examples from English, Venetian and Jewish composers. The case for this combination is strengthened by scholarship suggesting that Shakespeare may have traveled to Italy with members of an Italian family with Jewish roots.
Soprano Emily Noël gave sparkling performances of polished Claudio Monteverdi songs, as well as more homespun English ballads in a sort of entr’acte of groundling music. The instrumental contributions were equally strong, especially because the five musicians of Piffaro, the Renaissance Band, were filling in for members of the Gabrieli Consort, who were prevented from traveling to Washington because of visa problems. Priscilla Herreid and Joan Kimball had a rustic turn on dueling bagpipes, and the cornetto playing of Michael Collver was bright and elegant. Giovanni Gabrieli’s “Canzon Septimi Toni,” for opposing choirs of instruments, beautifully represented the quintessential Venetian sound from the turn of the 17th century.
Jacobi’s Shylock sputtered with bitter vitriol, though a thick accent may not be the best choice to avoid the stereotypes associated with the character. Samantha Bond, known to American audiences as Lady Rosamund in “Downton Abbey,” was a razor-tongued Portia, especially in Act 1, Scene 2, dismissing her many suitors with acidic wit. Clifford’s minimal but effective staging also featured Shirine Babb in supporting roles.
Downey is a freelance writer.