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Of St. Valentine's Skull, Conch Shells Inspector Clouseau And Singing In A Tight Bodice

February 11, 2008

I didn't think the concept would work, quite frankly. The theme wasn't the issue: The Valentine's Day idea makes sense for a series of February concerts by the vocal ensemble in which I sing alto, San Francisco Renaissance Voices. Neither was the music to be faulted: The combination of Franco-Flemish secular and sacred music on the theme of love is beautiful. I've been in raptures during the past few weeks of rehearsals over Josquin's "Adieu Mes Amours" and Goudimel's "Bonjour mon Coeur" to name just a couple of the songs on the program. And I think we delivered most of it in yesterday's inaugural San Francisco concert with passion and aplomb.

What I have been more concerned about as we've prepared for this concert series, is the staging. I've been singing with this ensemble for just over a year now and have been amused and sometimes delighted by the mise-en-scene concepts. We performed one concert based around a mass created by Jesuit monks in China dressed in Chinese-style outfits (lots of red and gold silk.) A program of songs for the dead was done goth-style, with all the singers in dark makeup, black fingernails and lace. And practically every concert seems to involve some kind of parading in from the back of the auditorium and various other bits of interpretive business. The staging so far has mostly been quite subtle. It has never upstaged the music.

But this current Valentine's series takes theatricality to a new level. The first half of the show -- the "sacred" part -- begins with us parading in to the room from the back in ecclesiastical robes with St. Valentine's skull on a platter to the sound of blaring conch shells, ringing bells and a modal-toned French song. The second half -- the "secular" part -- is even more flamboyant. Having changed into Renaissance costumes (it is possible, I was pleased to discover yesterday, to sing in a tightly laced up bodice), we attempt to reenact a "Court of Love" -- a mythical Renaissance courtroom drama in which a judge hears a case to do with some romantic situation, in our setting, a case of adultery. (Courts of Love probably never actually existed. It's a mythical idea that shows up in literature of the period.) The choir has hired an actress to play the role of the judge. Members of the choir impersonate the various characters in the drama (the bailiff, the accuser, the accused, the jury etc.) and everyone sports outrageous Inspector Clouseau French accents.

The tricky thing about this set-up is the danger of the mise-en-scene upstaging the music. The songs are wedged in between bits of hackneyed, stagey banter, not to mention the odd lute solo here and there for variety. I feared that the contrivances of, say, the judge declaring love to be "a battle of sexes" followed by the choir singing Jannequin's famous war song, "La Guerre" would be a big turn-off for the audience. Worse still, I was worried that people would think of the elaborate theatrics as little more than a ruse to cover up for poor musicality or some other criticism levied at the musical side of things.

Sometimes I have a nasty habit of taking myself too seriously. Turns out, I needn't have gotten my bodice into such a bunch. As my husband, Jim, reminded me on the way to the concert as I was kvetching about the possibility of the performance falling with a resounding "thunk" like the judge's gavel, most people don't attend performanves equipped with the pretentious attitude of the professional arts critic. They simply want to have a good time and hear some lovely music.

Jim didn't attend the performance, but he was right. The gig came off much better than I thought it would. The staging was sweet and funny and didn't distract attention from the music. If anything, it enlivened the typical staid concert atmosphere. The music itself, barring a few tight corners, delivered the requisite aphrodisiac effect: The audience seemed to dig the performance wholeheartedly, judging by their laughter and the ecstatic expressions on some of their faces during the slower, more lushly romantic numbers.

I stand corrected. Vive L'amour.

If you're in the Bay Area over the coming couple of weekends, we have two more Valentine shows, on 17th February in Ross (Marin County) and 23rd February in San Francisco. Check out the San Francisco Renaissance Voices website for more information.

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