Few knew that Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the 18th century philosopher and political thinker, wrote an opera; and certainly Friday night’s performance at Risley of his single dip into the genre was framed as a sort of well-kept secret from the annals of highbrow history. The Cunning Man, archaic and baroque as it may seem today, was hardly highbrow at the time. As this charming, stripped down production suggested, it is a simple lesson on the virtues of the individual and of the joys of being a peasant. The story of a peasant woman, Phoebe, winning back her lover from a noblewoman with the advice of the “cunning man,” a village soothsayer, proceeds quickly. It is then followed by an extended celebration by the village people (the better part of the second act) that includes a scene of pantomime telling the opposite story — a peasant woman choosing a peasant man over the sinister courting of the wealthy.Senior College Scholar and Music major Dorian Bandy ’10, the chief architect of this production, assembled a brilliant ensemble of directors, singers and musicians to highlight the elegant simplicity of the narrative, and what made such a simple story really shine were the details; the peasant dances, the exaggerated actions and reactions, and the exuberant musical arrangements that Bandy himself beefed up with a chorus of horns. The work was updated in a way sensitive to its playful, almost silly manner, with a rubber chicken, slinky, and bubble machine used as accessories to the title character’s “cunning” plans. Consciously cheap-looking signs made of butcher paper were hung up on the walls, acting as the only real set pieces, and interrupting the bookish atmosphere of Risley’s Great Hall with a gentle, folksy charm.The Hall itself, perfect in terms of ambience, was acoustically a little awkward, as Bandy’s quiet Baroque orchestra of lute, harpsichord, winds and period strings navigated an ocean of echoes. At the moments when only the harpsichord and bass accompanied a vocal line, the sound gelled perfectly, but at other times the orchestra, rich and sheen as it was, overwhelmed the articulations of the singers. In most operas, one is accustomed to reading super-titles and treating the voices as simply instruments, rather than listening for words. Here, however, one essentially had to “read” the plot through the facial expressions and vocal affects of the singers, who lucky for us executed both expertly. Stephen Lavonier, the “cunning man” himself, lived up to the title with his crazed, buggish eyes juxtaposed to the soft flush of Melanie Russell’s comic melancholy in the role of Phoebe. Cornell graduate student Zachary Wadsworth, as Phoebe’s lover Colin, arrived third, fresh and boyish, to complete the trio of larger than life, yet accessible caricatures.Watching Dorian Bandy conduct from the harpsichord was also a joy, his lighthearted mastery over gesture and dramatic development clearly an inspiration to the orchestra, singers and audience. One can little doubt that Bandy, a senior this year bound for study in London next year, is on is way to a big name in the world of Baroque, which though unknown to many has a worldwide scope that already seems to connect Bandy to musicians all over Europe and the U.S. He molded the orchestra perfectly around the action on stage, as Wadsworth and Russell’s nervous expressions of romance gave image to the violins’ lilting scales and the horns and percussion burst in to capture the bright faces of the dancing villagers.One of the lessons of this performance was that expertise alone doesn’t account for inspiring musicality. Rousseau wrote The Cunning Man with very little formal musical training, and some of the best moments in this production were indeed what could be called “amateur,” unburdened by tradition, as when Lavonier hilariously pranced around a sunglassed Wadsworth with a rubber chicken and plastic skull. So too were we enchanted when each singer momentarily broke from their operatic prowess to casually toss off a phrase in an almost spoken cadence, Bandy cleverly accompanying these comic moments with blips and trills on the harpsichord.One got the paradoxical sense that for all of the cultivation and mastery, it was these casual moments that made the production sparkle. This too seemed part of the message of Rousseau’s lesson; the lead characters choose rough, casual peasant love over the charm of nobility, and the cunning man himself relies on his natural, raw wit to bring about the joyous conclusion. Nevertheless, mastery was the foundation these moments needed to pop out, and Bandy and his team have delivered mastery, focused and developed. The anxious state of classical music in general will certainly benefit from the ingenuity of people like Bandy and the cast of The Cunning Man, whose do-it-yourself approach borrow a page from the world outside of the classics only to strengthen them, and will ensure the past is continually reinvented in fresh and sparkling incarnations.
Original Author: Maurice Chammah