CAMBRIDGE — “Let her rain now,” Anna Livia Plurabelle says on the next to last page of “Finnegans Wake,” and rain it did Saturday, as if in celebration of the premiere of Boston Baroque music director Martin Pearlman’s “Ricorso,” which is Act III of his work-in-progress “Finnegans Wake: An Operoar.” Water is a key element in James Joyce’s riverrun of a novel, so the author would surely have been pleased to have Mother Nature on his side.
The evening itself, part of Boston Baroque’s “New Directions” series, was titled “Monologues,” and it offered a trio of them. First up was Handel’s cantata “Agrippina condotta a morire.” Agrippina, the wife of the Roman emperor Claudius, poisoned her husband so that her son Nero could have the throne. Now Nero has sentenced his mother to death, and as she’s being led away, she implores the gods to send down thunder and lightning and, yes, rain on Rome, then relents and becomes maternal.
The libretto doesn’t give Agrippina much more than rage and regret to work with; she never stops to wonder whether her son isn’t merely taking after her. Still, there’s a greater range of emotion than soprano Julianne Gearhart conveyed. She sang with a bright, clarion tone and enunciated clearly, and her Italian was pleasing. But it all just poured forth. At the point where Agrippina recalls that Nero is her son, Gearhart barely stopped to notice.
The other selection before intermission, Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 1, was also a little disappointing. Bach’s old-fashioned elegance does its own kind of punning, not least in the multiple stops, but Christina Day Martinson’s performance on Baroque violin was fraught and sluggish and missing any kind of long line. Only the Presto finale danced.
Pearlman presented Act 1 of his “Operoar” in September 2012, setting the first five of James Joyce’s 626 pages. In Act III, he set the last three. (Act II, with 618 pages to choose from, is still to come.) The instrumental lineup remained the same: violin, viola, double bass, flute, clarinet, piano, and percussion. The speaker this time was actress Paula Plum, and she gave vivid voice to the monologue of Anna Livia, who in her guise as the river Liffey bids us a fond farewell/hello as she runs out to sea and the novel doubles back on itself. And though at times the orchestra covered her, making Joyce’s polymorphous text less than intelligible, Plum got the feeling across. “If I lose my breath for a minute or two,” she began, but she never did.
Pearlman’s music is a kind of cabaret take on the novel, waltzy here, jazzy there, burbling and banging everywhere. It’s most effective when it complements the words: here Danielle Maddon’s violin under “Is there one who understands me,” or Scott Woolweaver’s viola next to “But I’m loothing them that’s here.” Some mysteries remained, like the shift into a waltz at “So side by side.” But then, “Finnegans Wake” itself isn’t exactly an open book.