In performance: Romeo and Julia Koren
Rethinking early music, theatrically
by Charles T. Downey
Romeo och Julia Kören, an innovative vocal ensemble and theatrical troupe from Sweden, launched its first U.S. tour on Tuesday night in the Mansion at Strathmore. Founded in 1991 and based at the Royal Dramatic Theater of Stockholm, the group uses the performance of early music to weave new stories, staged mostly with pantomime, dance, and slapstick movement. As they showed in two productions, experimental theater is an ingenious way to bring largely forgotten music back to life.
The cast seemed selected more for acting ability than quality of voice, which could be disappointing for anyone familiar with the musical selections, especially in the first work, “Zefiro torna,” which stitched together nine madrigals and opera excerpts by Claudio Monteverdi. Ensemble intonation and accuracy in complicated runs, written by Monteverdi for virtuosic singers, were less than elegant in this performance by eight singing actors, a lutenist, and director Benoît Malmberg. If you let that concern go, the story of love’s travails – attraction, rejection, jealousy, despair, ecstasy – was entertaining and presented with plenty of good humor, although it occasionally undermined the tragedy of the music and its texts by juxtaposing it with comic action.
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“Beauty and Burlesque,” on the second half, was stronger because its selection of Renaissance part songs was often actually comic and not as difficult musically. The updating of some of the pieces – a Swingle Singers version of Farmer’s “Fair Phyllis,” jazzed up with snare brushes played on paper, or Josquin’s “El grillo” morphed into a drum circle – further underscored the goal of these performances, to revive this old music not as we think it may have been but as part of something new.
--Charles T. Downey
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