The opera dates back to 1725. In North America, historical evidence tells us, a Philadelphia audience attended a performance of the piece in 1798. That was it until two months ago, when, on consecutive days, two audiences in Chicago had the privilege. And last Saturday evening, that opportunity was extended to Bloomington: to experience in concert what may be the first opera ever written in Scotland, “The Gentle Shepherd.”
We can give thanks for the opportunity to Bloomington Early Music, the folks who continue to strive for the return of the still fondly remembered Bloomington Early Music Festival. They sponsored the performance and offered it to us free of charge, perhaps as a memory enhancer, as a faith builder for things to come. Right now, the festival exists in spurts: a performance here and there, with the promise that — in a couple of years — we might once again have a bigger, longer event approximating to what we had up to a few years ago.
Behind the revival of “The Gentle Shepherd” is a one-woman force, violinist/fiddler Brandi Berry, artistic director of the Chicago-based Bach and Beethoven Ensemble. While seeking Scottish folk tunes, she chanced upon facsimiles of the composition. “It struck me as such a unique piece of art,” she said, labeling it not an opera or a pastoral comedy but a “musical play.” Berry recruited her ensemble and members of another period group, Alchemy Viols, which has performed here previously, to participate in a plan to produce it. And so it came to be.
The musical play’s author is the Scottish poet Allen Ramsey, who, it is believed, called upon an Italian composer of his time, Lorenzo Bocchi, to provide the music, heavily based on Scottish folk tunes and style, along with generous touches of Baroque Italian music. It is attached to a story about a shepherd who discovers he is not as humble in origin as he thought. He stems from royalty, a fact that has an impact not only on him but on those who have been important in his life, including his beloved.
On Saturday, those of us gathered in the Rose Firebay of the Ivy Tech John Waldron Arts Center saw only scenes from the whole package. They were, however, charming and performed with such grace and joy and sincerity that a watcher and listener had to be won over. I certainly was. The instrumental musicians chosen from those two participating ensembles proved thrilling in music that kept rising from sweet songs and dances to faster and louder fortissimos.
The vocalists were adroitly chosen: Thomas Alaan, owner of a glorious countertenor voice, as the Gentle Shepherd; a beautifully voiced soprano, Alexandra Olsavsky, as his love, Peggy, and Lindsey Adams, with a healthy mezzo to her credit, as Peggy’s older sister, Jenny.
All the musicians were believers. Consequently, I came to believe as — I’m sure — others there did. The closing ovation sounded super enthusiastic