Angel Corella, the artistic director of Pennsylvania Ballet.

Angel Corella, the artistic director of Pennsylvania Ballet.

by Michael Caruso

Piffaro, the Renaissance Band based at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, opened its 2016-17 season Oct. 8 and 9 by celebrating “The Musical World of Don Quixote,” the immortal character created by Miguel de Cervantes in what is universally considered the first modern novel. Published in two parts in 1605 and 1615 under the full title of “The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha,” the novel tells the picaresque tale of a Spanish knight errant seeking adventure just as knighthood’s chivalry was seen to be becoming a part of the past.

Piffaro’s six regular players were joined by New York Polyphony (counter tenor Geoffrey Williams, tenor Christopher Dylan Herbert, baritone Stephen Caldicott Williams and bass Craig Phillips) and soprano Nell Snaidas plus additional instrumentalists to perform a broad yet deep overview of the music heard at the time when Cervantes’ novel occurs.

Brilliantly assembled by Piffaro’s Grant Herreid, “The Musical World of Don Quixote” was the most ambitious and successful concert I’ve ever heard Piffaro give. Not only was the playing and singing both superb, but Herreid’s concept efficaciously projected not just the title character as a man of great honor but his creator, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, to be the Spanish-language equivalent of William Shakespeare in his ability to understand the most profound aspirations of the human soul as it struggles to survive the trials and tribulations of life.

Herreid assembled and ordered “The Musical World of Don Quixote” to follow in broad strokes the narrative of Cervantes’ novel. We began with “The Madness of Don Quixote” and “Don Quixote Becomes a Knight Errant” and learned how he prepared his armor and steed, chose a lady, sallied forth and chose his squire, experienced many an adventure, finally experiencing “The Death of Don Quixote.”

Amid a plethora of purely instrumental and often anonymous pieces, Herreid interspersed nuggets of gold composed by the Renaissance’s leading lights such as Francisco Guerrero and Tomas Luis de Victoria. Songs and dances filled in those broad strokes with telling details of the life lived by Don Quixote and his fellow Spaniards, both happy and sad, both boisterous and intimate.

The playing throughout the concert set and held an amazingly high standard of polish and passion. The Medieval and Renaissance instruments spoke in tart tones that were securely projected. But it was in those works that featured the singing of New York Polyphony and soprano Nell Snaidas when the concert’s finest music making was heard. Snaidas sang with a palpable connection with and commitment to the texts of her songs.

Even more memorable was Polyphony’s singing in Victoria’s “Asperges me, Domine” and the “Agnus Dei” from his “Missa Defunctis.” In the former, baritone Stephen Caldicott Williams took the part of the priest sprinkling holy water as Don Quixote’s books of chivalry were burned, his voice warm and reassuring.

But it was counter tenor Geoffrey Williams who sang the priest’s intoning of the ancient plainsong melody that opened each stanza of the “Agnus Dei” – Lamb of God – at Don Quixote’s funeral. His clear, non-vibrato tones rang out with aching poignancy at the passing of both a knight errant and the chivalry he fought to sustain. In both instances, the solo voice was surrounded by Renaissance polyphony sung with immaculate tuning, flawless ensemble and seamless blend.

Piffaro will return to Chestnut Hill for its holiday program, “La Noche Buena,” Saturday, Dec. 17, 7:30 p.m., in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. Visit www.piffaro.org.

PENNA. BALLET

The Pennsylvania Ballet opened its 2016-17 season this past weekend in the Academy of Music with a sumptuous yet athletic production of “Cinderella.” The mounting, featuring Ben Stevenson’s revised choreography to Sergei Prokofiev’s 1945 score, continues through Oct. 23.

Stevenson’s take on the well-known fairy tale contains no major alterations on the narrative with the exception that Cinderella loses a ballet shoe rather than a glass slipper. The most obvious twist is the casting of male dancers in the roles of her two evil stepsisters and making them more clumsy than mean-spirited. Otherwise, the tale unfolds just as you’d expect it to, ending with the Prince discovering that the shunted-aside stepdaughter is actually the beloved one he met at the ball held to help him choose his Princess.

In a stunning sign of just how deep the pool of talent artistic Angel Corella has assembled at Pennsylvania Ballet as he enters his third season as artistic director, both Cinderella and her Prince were danced Saturday evening not by principals or soloists but by two members of the corps de ballet: Kathryn Manger and Aleksey Babayev. Judging by the ovations both received for particular moments during the performance and at its conclusion, I doubt if anyone felt short-changed.

Manger proved herself up to the challenge of projecting both sides of Cinderella’s personality coin: the feisty yet overlooked stepdaughter and stepsister sitting by the fireside, then the glittering proto-Princess dancing at the ball, stealing the heart of everyone’s Prince Charming. Her dancing was so flawlessly on the music and her characterization so convincing that she dispelled any quibbling about the unlikelihood of the whole business. Her work “au point” was so secure that one felt she just might have been born on point.

Babayev projected both nobility and ardor in equal measure through dancing most notable for its breathtaking technique and a princely carriage the House of Windsor would envy. His leaps and turns were executed with both daring and precision, as steady as a guided missile in midair and landing with barely a sound. And he partnered Manger with strength and sensitivity.

Albert Gordon was a devilish jester, Daysei Torriente an enchanting fairy godmother and Arian Molina Soca and Peter Weil comically klutzy as the two stepsisters. Beatrice Jona Affron conducted the Pennsylvania Ballet Orchestra with supportive incision.

Next on Pennsylvania Ballet’s docket is “Revolution” at the Merriam Theater Nov. 10-13. For more information, visit www.paballet.org.

Contact NOTEWORTHY at Michael-caruso@comcast.net.

...