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Music Review

Mood rings true in Cantata Singers’ ‘Riders to the Sea’

By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / January 17, 2011

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Ralph Vaughan Williams, the season’s focus for the Cantata Singers and music director David Hoose, is a composer whose reputation (in Vaughan Williams’s case, quintessentially British) is fascinatingly complicated by the actual music: the label fits and misses the point, all at the same time. Appropriate, then, that the season’s operatic element — Vaughan Williams’s 1927 setting of J.M. Synge’s “Riders to the Sea,’’ which anchored the group’s concert last Friday — similarly muddles its category.

“Riders to the Sea’’ has traditional operatic ingredients — conflict, curses, crises, death — but doesn’t behave like a traditional opera: the drama seems strangely foregone, the emotion a heavy shroud. On the Irish coast, a mother has, one by one, lost her sons to the sea. Her daughters fret; her remaining son embarks on a fatalistic journey. The work depends less on how detailed the canvas is than on how taut it’s stretched, and Hoose was an ideal advocate: The pacing was steady and sure, the orchestral color intense but not indulgent.

Unfortunately, the performance’s logistics created something of a missed opportunity. The cast (Brian Church as the son, Lisa Lynch and Claire Filer as the daughters, Lynn Torgove as the mother) was never less than solid, and often superb — especially Filer, pouring out lovely, polished sound, and Torgove, dramatically and vocally fervent and sure. But Synge’s eloquence was sacrificed to a semi-staged presentation (directed by Alexandra Borrie) that placed the singers at the back of the Jordan Hall stage, behind the orchestra, frustrating the diction without compensatory theatrical gain. Still, even if the meaning was obscured, the mood was palpable and true.

The concert’s first half featured the Singers in unaccompanied choral works, ranging from limpid part-songs by Edward Elgar to the exotic effects of Vaughan Williams’s “Three Shakespeare Songs’’ (the bells in “Full fathom five’’ were especially uncanny). Folk music had a spotlight, in arrangements that aspired to mini-dramas: Vaughan Williams’s “Loch Lomond’’ spun elegant tension between solo pathos (tenor Richard Simpson) and the formal plushness of a men’s chorus; Gustav Holst’s “I Love My Love’’ used a panoply of choral resources for cinematic sweep.

Similar combinations of sturdy, folk-like melody and glossy harmonic color suited both Gerald Finzi’s bright “My Spirit Sang All Day’’ and Holst’s umbrous “The Evening-Watch’’; even Elgar’s comparative gentleness traded on the same restless sweetness. The performances were precise and restrained, smooth and sober; but, filtered through the powerful bleakness of “Riders,’’ it was that restlessness that stayed in the memory, the churn under the surface.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.

CANTATA SINGERS David Hoose, music director

At: Jordan Hall, Friday