Send in the clowns

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  June 19, 2007

The following night, Benjamin Bagby was supposed to appear with his group Sequentia in his imaginative reconstruction of a medieval Icelandic Edda telling the story of the Rheingold Curse (the myth behind Wagner’s Ring Cycle). But a bronchial infection he’s been suffering from for the past 18 months kept him from flying in from Paris. So a reduced Sequentia — Swedish mezzo-soprano Agnethe Christensen and alto Lena Susanne Norin, Elizabeth Gaver on mediæval fiddle, and Norbert Rodenkirchen playing mediæval flutes (one made out of swan bone) and ancient Germanic harp — did all the sections from the Edda not requiring a male voice. The three women have actually formed another group called Ulv, and they fleshed out the short evening with selections of Swedish folk hymns and ballads.

The Edda began in the dark, with Rodenkirchen’s swan flute accompanying Christensen’s wrenching howl. Later, Norin’s voice plunged to bottomless depths — she could be a baritone or bass. The powerful performances took place in spots of light on a darkened stage in a dark theater. It’s a dramatic effect, and a little arty for this primitive music, all of which — whether dealing with the Rheingold betrayals or God’s love, whether a violent ballad about a wolf who leaves the heroine’s bloody arm at the foot of a tree or a song about the joy of spring greenery — seems to have similar melancholy modal harmonies. Having a male voice would have added an important element to the mix. But this evening brought a whole new set of gods to the festival, and it provided an alternative to the French refinement of Lully and Rameau and Eccles’s teasing English wit.

What affected me most deeply these past weeks was the semi-staged concert version of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel that Keith Lockhart led at the Boston Pops. This was the first time the Pops had put on a complete “book” musical, and it was the perfect Pops project. Broadway musicals have the kind of instrumental scoring the Pops can replicate, and the best of them are on the highest artistic level, yet completely accessible — and enjoyable — to a popular audience. Carousel, Ferenc Molnár’s touching play Liliom transferred to the Maine coast, is at least as good as Pagliacci and has an emotional grandeur beyond the reach or ambition of Psyché.

Richard Rodgers considered it his best score. “If I Loved You” — sung by the carousel barker Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan, the young mill-worker he’s just met — might be the most moving and radiant romantic duet in musical theater. And in the context of the story, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is surprisingly uncloying, a powerful anthem to hope even when life seems most hopeless. “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over,” “This Was a Real Nice Clambake,” and “Blow High Blow Low” are irresistibly exuberant. “When I Marry Mister Snow” and “When the Children Are Asleep” (another duet) are enchanting numbers that rarely get heard outside of a complete performance. “What’s the Use of Wondrin’ ” is a forgotten gem, a song of forgiveness for physical abuse!

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