This year’s Boston Early Music Festival theme is “Carnival,” and like at any carnival, entertainments and diversions are on offer from morning till midnight. Daytime offers lectures, myriad affordable fringe concerts in venues around the city, and the exhibition at the Courtyard Marriott downtown, where instrument makers and booksellers hawk their wares, and friendly staff at the Viola da Gamba Society of America table offer five-minute lessons to anyone who passes by.
The latest hours on Tuesday and Wednesday drew a devoted crowd to intimate concerts at Northeastern’s Fenway Center. Tuesday night, medieval vocal ensemble Dialogos filled the narrow but cavernous space with hypnotic chant and polyphony, including a few selections in Old English. The audience was mostly gray-haired but not entirely; at a Wednesday night concert of iridescent French baroque music from harpsichordist Béatrice Martin and bass viol player Philippe Pierlot, the musicians of a high school baroque ensemble took up two rows near the back.
The most carnival-like festival concert has by far been that of the Italian ensemble Micrologus, and not just because of its comedic songs and rowdy dances from 16th-century Venice. The musicians so readily connected with the audience and clowned with each other it seemed they’d be just as at home in a public piazza as they were in Jordan Hall.
Variations in instrumentation, tempo, and texture kept the program flowing. Director Patrizia Bovi’s lament of a young girl wed to an impotent old man led into a lusty, lustrous song from a quartet of singers, which in turn was followed by a lute solo and improvisation from Crawford Young. Brothers Simone and Enea Sorini shared an ardent duet, Simone singing while strolling with his lute and Enea draping his legs off the stage, while Goffredo Degli Esposti accompanied them on a bagpipe. (His skills also included playing the recorder and the string drum at the same time.)
Leah Stuttard’s bray harp added wry bounce, anchoring a jaunty jig while the full force of the ensemble slowly came in. In keeping with her instrument’s comical sound, she was most frequently on the receiving end of the ensemble’s japes, getting interrupted mid-solo and pouting with mock indignation. Despite vocal fraying in the concert’s second half, the energy never flagged.
Since clever punning and wordplay so often figured in the lyrics, it was disappointing to find no translations on the programs offered to those who didn’t buy the heavy BEMF “yearbook” for $10 However, near the end of the concert, Enea Sorini brandished an oblong loaf of bread and declaimed “Questa si chiama. . .” offering it to Bovi, who responded “La bella mazachrocha!” with a grin, taking hold of it with both hands before letting it swing towards the floor, launching the ensemble into the evening’s raunchiest selections. No translation needed.
The following night, the performance of Handel’s “La Resurrezione” by the BEMF Orchestra and Soloists also went untranslated for those without yearbooks. The work is not one of the most immediately engaging in Handel’s oeuvre, but still has some gorgeous tunes in its slightly over two hours. Most of these belong to Mary Magdalene, here soprano Teresa Wakim, who initially seemed exhausted but proved she had hit her stride with a spirited “Ho un non so che nel cor,” which left her voice exposed above quiet strings. Like Wakim, soprano Karina Gauvin has been delivering a tour de force performance in this week’s BEMF opera, “Le Carnaval de Venise,” but her showing here as the Angel was not as strong; in the oratorio’s first half her vocal leaps sounded labored, and her phrases frequently flagged at the end. The second half saw her more at ease, and that shone through in her performance.
Perennial BEMF favorite tenor Aaron Sheehan made a noble St. John, the florid ornamentations in his arias never destabilizing his steady flow of sound. Baritone Christian Immler was pugnacious and puissant as Lucifer, concentrating fury and fire into a confident performance. The orchestra’s strings moved as one organism following concertmaster Robert Mealy, the winds buoyant and energetic, and the continuo section muscular but never inelegant.
Carnivals are full of surprises, and this oratorio’s most wonderful surprise was the BEMF debut of an exceptional young mezzo-soprano. As Mary Cleophas, Juilliard graduate student Kelsey Lauritano showed off a rippling wine-dark voice with a low range of staggering strength, combined with a splendid stage presence. Unlike the other vocal soloists, this was her only event at this year’s festival, so there are no more opportunities to hear her this week. May this be the first of many BEMF appearances for her.
MICROLOGUS and BOSTON EARLY MUSIC FESTIVAL ORCHESTRA AND SOLOISTS
Presented by the Boston Early Music Festival. At Jordan Hall, June 14 and 15.Zoë Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.