Ensemble Leonarda and soprano Amaranta Viera present Bernier's cantata Medée
by Casey Ann Reinke for Vocal Area Network
Posted January 30, 2012

Amaranta VieraJust in time for Valentine's Day, the period instrument group Ensemble Leonarda (Susan Hahn Graham, flute; Marika Holmqvist, violin; David Himmelheber, cello; Nancy Kito, harpsichord) will team up with soprano Amaranta Viera in a program entitled "He's Just Not That Into You: What happens after the fairy tale ends ‘and they lived happily ever after'? [NOT]." The February 12 concert will feature Nicolas Bernier's cantata Medea, excerpts from Lully's Thesée, plus dramatic readings about the perils of love.

Harpsichordist Nancy Kito on the concert's theme: "There is a very fine line between love and hate, particularly in love stories where things don't go the way you wanted them to. You can probably make someone fall in love with you, but you can't make them stay in love with you; people's emotions aren't neatly packaged into compartments If that were true, psychiatrists wouldn't have any clients! The story of Jason and Medea, he moves on and she can't get over it. I heard a quote attributed to Mae West. It was a woman's magazine article talking about breaking up with your boyfriend. Supposedly she said, 'Mae West would never cry over a man…she'd just open the door and yell NEXT!' Well, some women can't move on and yell Next!"

Soprano Amaranta Viera discusses why Medea is more than just a scorned woman seeking vengeance on a man who done her wrong.

"Euripides' Medea is intriguing because it subverts the Greek paradigm of the submissive woman. She's strong, smart, and has an intellect equal to those of the men around her. Thing is, she uses that same rationality to serve insane ends, so we don't get the proto-feminist heroine that would satisfy our 21st century sensibilities. What we do get is a character both sympathetic and repulsive, grand and pathetic, and perfect fodder for a French Baroque composer steeped in the Italian style."

Nicolas Bernier (1665-1734) studied with Antonio Caldara in Rome and was a fixture in the courts of Louis XIV and XV. His Medée (1703), from his first book of cantatas, gives us a pre-homicidal Medea walking the line between rage and tenderness. What makes the work so effective–and true to Euripides' telling–is the way Bernier's music moves seamlessly between those two affects without mitigating any intensity of emotion. The cantata's opening recitatif engages the listener immediately with muscularity: "Quoi? Tu trahis Medée…Ingrat…Perfide…", but immediately relaxes into "… hélas, Jason, cruel, tu fuis, tu ne m'écoute pas."

And so the balancing act continues for the duration of the main part of the work, which ends with Medea rejecting sentiment and steeling herself for the murder of not just Jason's new bride and her father, but of her two young children, too. Ultimately, though Medea is saved--by virtue of her pedigree (she's the granddaughter of the Sun god)--from the certain death her insistence on vengeance would have earned any mere mortal, she must live with the consequences of her actions. This, perhaps, is a much more profound punishment--and utterly human.

Unfortunately, the requirements of the time demanded that the listener have something morally upright to take away from the story. So the cantata's final aria, while musically satisfying, takes us out of the tension created by Medea's juxtaposition of righteous indignation with moral turpitude. In this case, we're told: Ladies: watch out for fickle men; Men: don't mess with the heart of a woman in love.

This formulaic element notwithstanding, Bernier's music is beautiful and nuanced enough to more than make up for it. It's also an exquisite example of what happens when you take Italian tone painting techniques and put them in the hands of a Frenchman wielding a much smaller, finer brush; les goûts-réunis exemplified.

Ensemble Leonarda in concert with soprano Amaranta Viera, Sunday, February 12, 2012 at 4:00 PM at the French Church du St. Esprit, 109 East 60th Street, New York City, featuring Bernier's cantata Medée. This is a one-hour concert, no intermission. Tickets are $20; students and seniors $15. Info: 917-214-8714 or visit www.myspace.com/ensembleleonarda or www.amarantaviera.com

Casey Ann Reinke is a pianist and freelance writer in New York City.
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