21 January 2015

Salon/Sanctuary’s ‘More Between Heaven & Earth’

Star-crossed lovers: Jefferson (Cake) and Cosway (Errico).
All photos by Stephen de las Heras, courtesy of Salon/Sanctuary Concerts.

At the risk of turning this blog into a sort of “Salon/Sanctuary Newsletter,” I record my responses to Sunday’s performance of More Between Heaven and Earth, the latest presentation of a site-specific, multi-disciplinary concert that’s become one of Salon/Sanctuary’s trademarks.

Really, calling it “site-specific” and “multi-disciplinary” doesn’t convey enough sense of the imagination and energy behind this concert, which I’ve now seen twice. Actors walk among us, reciting from letters exchanged by Thomas Jefferson and Maria Cosway; musicians perform works that Jefferson and Cosway heard while in each other’s company (plus two songs that Cosway wrote); and all of this in Fraunces Tavern, where Jefferson kept an office while Secretary of State. At least one of the letters was written in the Tavern. Short of summoning Jefferson and Cosway back from the dead — and thus engaging in precisely the sort of supernaturalism Jefferson disdained — there isn’t much one could do to get a clearer sense of the circumstances portrayed. We hear what they heard, we learn what they learned.

Luminous: Errico sings one of Cosway’s songs.

Written and directed by Erica Gould, based on a concept by Jessica Gould (who also researched the music), More Between Heaven and Earth plausibly depicts Jefferson and Cosway as star-crossed lovers, and Sunday’s performance brought extra force to that interpretation. The Jefferson I’d previously seen, Campbell Scott, played an intellectual more at ease with philosophy and statecraft than with romance. Jonathan Cake, on Sunday afternoon, made his Jefferson a practiced yet passionate charmer. Both interpretations are valid, I think: in his letters, Jefferson expresses frustration that could easily derive from his own awkwardness in writing about his feelings, and yet he could just as likely be frustrated because the threat of scandal made it impossible for a public figure to be open about those feelings when writing to a married woman.

And if Jefferson had acted on his attraction to Cosway, the risk of scandal would have increased. If Cosway ever divorced her husband — further scandal, compounded by her Catholic faith. Thus, whenever Jefferson talks about the separation of church and state, we understand — in this context — that he’s thinking about a society based on laws and reason, where a love like theirs might stand a chance. It’s an extra nuance that doesn’t trivialize Jefferson’s position: it personalizes it.

Gould and Boutté

The luminous Melissa Errico once again proved herself a magnificent Cosway: smart enough to keep up with her American correspondent, coquettish enough to thrive in Paris, lovely enough for anyone to cherish. Of course Jefferson fell for this woman, and when she appeared with the utterly engaging, flawlessly American-accented Cake, I felt the nearly irresistible urge to tear up all the history books and start rewriting, so these two could wind up together after all.

In the two songs by Cosway, Errico sang with limpid simplicity and thoughtful emotion, making one yearn for her to record an album of similar material. (Songs from the Age of Jane Austen might be a marketable concept. Somebody make this happen, please.) Errico’s vocal approach also created a compelling contrast with the rich soprano voice displayed by Jessica Gould in the arias from Sacchini’s Dardanus. One woman is singing for a particular man, the other is singing for the publique parisien, and we hear the difference.

Errico and Boutté.
(With violinist Daubek at center.)

In Dardanus, the titular hero’s love is thwarted when the Princess Iphise is promised to another, a poignant circumstance, surely, for Jefferson and Cosway as they listened. Erica Gould’s staging raised the stakes in the evening’s most effective operatic number, “Il me fuit, il ne m’écoute plus,” in which Jessica Gould chased Cake around the room, bringing Iphise’s drama directly to Jefferson and fully conveying the fury of a woman scorned. Tony Boutté brought excellent French diction and sweet tone to his numbers, and like Gould, he seemed in his element when interacting with the rest of the cast.

Christen Clifford struck intriguingly modern and androgynous notes as the Narrator, supplying useful background information and gently pushing our sympathies even closer to Jefferson and Cosway. Deborah Wright Houston (with assistance from Allegra Durante) provided the sumptuous costumes, including gorgeous gowns for Errico and Gould and a man’s suit for Clifford. I did prefer the darker, more dignified costume Scott wore a year ago to the Dresden Shepherd outfit that Cake wore, and I don’t remember Boutté’s wig possessing those distracting peyos — but these are quibbles.

Hell hath no fury: Gould and Cake.

At the harpsichord, Elliot Figg led members of the Salon/Sanctuary Orchestra in a crisp, energetic reading, which included instrumental spotlights on him (in Duphly’s “La Médée”) and on violinist Tatiana Daubek (in the adagio from Correlli’s Sonata in G-minor). So very little of this music is familiar to modern audiences that it’s easy to feel that we, like Jefferson and Cosway, are hearing it fresh from the composers’ pens — another way in which More Between Heaven and Earth succeeds.

In our own time, when religion and politics are mixing again, with headlines every day announcing results sometimes ludicrous (schoolbooks without science) and sometimes tragic (the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo), it’s healthy to reflect a while on Jefferson’s words — not merely to have them declaimed to us, but to have them presented in a context that would have meant a great deal to him personally.

A few more self-evident truths:
Cake as Jefferson.

1 comment:

Anne said...

Terrific review. I love how much attention and care you give to your reviews.

Passion is a funny thing...passion under what was then imposable constraints sometimes becomes more passionate, not less. One is held fast, so within that constraint one can let themselves go within