Choral Arts sings Rossini's "Petite Messe'

Joyful Christianity, for a change

Montalbano: The mezzo upstaged the soprano.
Montalbano: The mezzo upstaged the soprano.

I attended the latest Choral Arts Philadelphia concert with a mezzo who had it pegged by the first half. Rossini's Petite Messe Solennelle is really an opera, she advised me.

Forget the Latin text and the word Mass in the title, she said. Every aria and chorus can be fitted into the standard story line for an opera, with the soprano and the tenor as the romantic leads, the baritone as the villain, and the mezzo as the soprano's rival.

Change the words, dress the cast in costumes, and the audience could revel in love songs, dramatic arias and wedding scenes without one change in the score.

My companion wasn't the first person to notice that Rossini's mass bears a marked resemblance to the 40 operas he wrote before he retired in 1829 at the age of 37. Napoleon III commented that the Petite Messe Solennelle is neither "little, solemn, or particularly liturgical." The composer himself wrote an apologetic note in which he lamented that he was "born for comic opera."

Rossini wrote this mass for private performance. A piano provides most of the instrumental accompaniment, and its opening notes create an informal, salon-music atmosphere. The introduction sounds almost jazzy, even though the mass was composed in 1863.

Wedding scene

Well, why shouldn't we have a mass rooted in the comic opera tradition? In a time when churches present jazz masses and Calypso masses, there ought to be room for a mass for Saturday night— a good-natured, beautiful piece that offers choruses and arias endowed with all the charm and grace of a romance with a happy ending.

Rossini's upbeat musical personality shines through every section. The standard text for the Credo contains some doleful thoughts, like the references to the crucifixion, but Rossini slipped past that part without too much unpleasantness and produced a Credo that's primarily a happy celebration of the basic Christian beliefs.

Most composers give the Sanctus a grand monumental treatment. But Rossini's Sanctus is airy and graceful. It sounds, in fact, like the music that might precede the wedding scene in an opera.

"'Salon sound'

Matthew Glandorf, director of Choral Arts Philadelphia, specializes in period instrument performances of Renaissance and Baroque music. For this performance, he extended the period instrument philosophy to the mid-19th Century.

The piano was a 1902 Bösendorfer chosen for its resemblance to the "salon sound" of the piano Rossini would have used. The other instrument on the stage was a harmonium— a kind of foot-pumped parlor organ. Glandorf could have used the St. Mark's Church organ, but he opted for the special sound of the instrument that Rossini used in the performances staged in 19th-Century town houses and salons.

For his soloists, Glandorf recruited experienced early music performers, who absorbed the peculiarities of 19th-Century French style just as they normally master the styles of 18th-Century England or 16th-Century Portugal. Glandorf headed his cast with a world-class early music star, soprano Julianne Baird, but the other three soloists were all A-list vocalists with the strong, supple voices that this mass requires.

One of the evening's highlights was a trio for mezzo, tenor and baritone that blended three distinctive, richly colored voices singing three distinct, perfectly harmonized melody lines.

Upstaged by the mezzo

Julianne Baird may spend most of her time singing the cooler liturgical works of the Baroque, but she produced an appropriate level of 19th-Century anguish in the crucifixion section of the Credo. She extended her emotional range even further in the most operatic section, the motet O salutaris hostia ("O saving victim") that Rossini inserted just before the concluding Agnus Dei.

Good as Baird was, she was upstaged by mezzo Maren Montalbano, who followed her with the kind of passionate outcry that pulls opera audiences out of their seats. The soprano may get the hero in operas, but the mezzo got the last word in Rossini's version of the Mass.

In one of those coincidences that frequently dot the Philadelphia music schedule, the Philadelphia Singers will present the Petite Messe Solennelle on February 18th at the Perelman. That's a Monday, not a Saturday, but it should be a good way to extend your weekend, if the Singers produce the kind of performance Choral Arts Philadelphia gave its parishioners.

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