The Baroque era was the heyday of the oratorio and Passion: vocal works with orchestra, usually sacred, usually dramatic (soloists represent specific characters), usually not staged (no sets, costumes or action). In the Emmett Robinson Theater on Saturday, conductor Joe Miller and the Westminster Choir brought us the work that famously began the interest in oratorio, Giacomo Carissimi’s “Jephte,” from 17th century Rome.
This was paired with David Lang’s “The Little Match Girl Passion,” a recent attempt at reviving the Passion format (drama with contemplative reaction by the chorus), now well known mostly thanks to Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion.” Lang won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for music for this work.
“Jephte” was staged, a decision which perhaps helped the audience understand what in the original is Latin narration (no translations or supertitles). The Westminster Choir sang with precision, but their stage movements seemed forced and amateurish. Thomas Lynch was effective as the title character; as his daughter, Oliva Greene sang with fervor and style but ran out of breath in some of the longer phrases.
Inexplicably the turning point of the drama was botched: when Jephte returns home after battle he should see his daughter first, not some of the bystanders. His vow had been to sacrifice the first living thing he sees if Jehovah would grant this victory. Still, the tragic power of Carissimi’s music made an impact on the audience, though the staging did not clarify the plot.
The staging of Lang’s “Little Match Girl,” based on the Hans Christian Andersen story, did help amplify the composer’s post-minimalist music. Dancer Kaitlyn Gilliland was moving as the Match Girl, dancing choreography by Pontus Lidberg in its world premiere. The chorus sang for more than minutes from memory, a feat in concentration, and with only the barest of instrumental support (a few percussion instruments). This fascinating offering by the Westminster Choir repeats at 7 p.m. Sunday evening.
William D. Gudger is an organist and professor emeritus of music at the College of Charleston.