For over three decades Sequentia has been an innovative force in the world of early music: very early music, that is — pre-dating the 14th century. The Paris-based ensemble brought its signature blend of scholarship, speculation, and performance to Town Hall on Saturday (Jan. 23). As part of the Early Music Guild's International Series, Sequentia made its return to Seattle with a vengeance.
On offer was the local premiere of a semi-staged version of The Rheingold Curse. For 90 minutes, without intermission, they kept the audience spellbound with this "Germanic Saga of Greed and Revenge." Based on a medieval manuscript of the Icelandic Edda, The Rheingold Curse presents one of Sequentia director and medievalist Benjamin Bagby's reconstructions of a kind of ancient performance art.
The ensemble originally won international acclaim for its interpretations of the music of Hildegard von Bingen, which featured the scholarship of cofounder Barbara Thornton. (Thornton, who died in 1998, made her last recording for their Â Ordo Virtutum CD.) Since then, Bagby has focused on the oral bardic traditions of Northern Europe, for example in his solo performing version of scenes from Beowulf. The Rheingold Curse follows a similar line of thought but calls for a small ensemble of five musicians. Appearing with Bagby were the same four Sequentia associates with whom he recorded this Eddic saga in 2001: singers Agnethe Christensen and Lena Susanne Norin, flute and lyre-player Norbert Rodenkirchen, and fiddler Elizabeth Gaver.
Together they present the interlocking tales of heroes, lovers, and war lords who become entangled by the curse placed on a horde of gold. The multigenerational curse also extends across a wide-ranging landscape and incorporates memories of at least two historical figures (most famously, Attila the Hun). Bagby decided to frame the stories with two sections in an eerily prophetic mode, also drawn from the Edda (the word suggests "ancient wisdom," according to Heimir PÃ¡lsson, a philologist with whom Sequentia consulted while preparing their project). The opening and closing poems represent the cosmic visions of an oracular priestess and concern the genesis and ending of the world.
The source material for The Rheingold Curse — most famously plundered by Wagner and Tolkien in modern times — is the oldest manuscript of Eddic poetry, preserved in Iceland in a 13th-century manuscript (known as the Codex Regius). But even that medieval manuscript stands at a remove of a alf-millennium or so from the living performance traditions of these stories. Bagby's guiding premise is that the literary sources merely fossilize what was once a vibrant oral tradition — a potent brew of verse and music through which bards mesmerized their preliterate audiences. Like the rhapsodes who performed the Homeric epics, these bards elaborated and handed down the sagas to be experienced through the ritual of performance — not as literary abstractions.
As for musical sources — well, there really aren't any, as Bagby explains, beyond a possible scrap of melody. His solution was to deduce a series of simple modes of a few notes based on research into traditions of sung oral poetry that endured in Iceland. The performers also studied the metrics of the Eddic poetry with PÃ¡lsson. In the performance, they work from memory to generate what felt like "authentic" ways of declaiming the text within the framework of these modes.
Another set of deductions guided the choice and tuning of the small instrumental complement. The whole project is reminiscent of an archeological dig where images of an entire culture are extrapolated from fragments of bones, tools, and ornaments.
But the goal of all this research was to revive the ancient storytellers' art for a contemporary audience. Bagby and colleagues succeeded in bringing these Eddic characters out of suspended animation, calling them to life with a spare but pliant vocabulary of declamation and instrumental accompaniment.
As the chanters, Bagby, Christensen, and Norin effortlessly shifted among their multiple roles. Â The two women established an apocalyptic round-the-campfire mood with their Norn-like visions. Christensen was superb as a radiantly reawakened Brynhilde (to text that Wagner incorporated verbatim in the third act of Siegfried), who is transformed into an unyielding engine of vengeance. With her stoic demeanor, Norin captured Gudrun's profound grief at the betrayal of her husband Sigurd and then rallied for her own expression of formidable fury against Atli (Attila).
Accompanying himself with a six-string lyre, Bagby made more vivid use of gestures to add texture. He shaded his protean baritone for an impressive range of characterizations. The trickster god Loki (responsible for passing on the original curse), Sigurd's macho arrogance, the defiant bravado of Gunnar, Atli's besotted demise — Bagby easily differentiated among them with remarkable economy. His harping similarly made for evocative scene painting. We heard the rippling waters where the gold is first found, while a suspenseful fade-out signaled Gunnar's death as he plays music to himself in a snake pit prepared by Atli.
The vocal settings alternated between a recitative-like delivery and (in the framing scenes most of all) something more like incantation. Echoes of unadorned plainchant mingled with more emotionally fraught laments. Meanwhile, the instrumental palette changed with each section (or "lay"), adding another element of variety. Rodenkirchen (who also doubled on lyre) intensified the eerie atmosphere of the two prophecies with the shrill piping of a tiny flute made from a swan'ês bone. He also conjured a sense of changing scenery with his imaginative accompaniments on wooden flutes. A brief duet with Chistensen beating a caribou-skin frame drum was especially effective at evoking the martial menace of Atli and his men. Gaver's accompaniments on 4-string fiddle offered less flexibility.
The use of English supertitles made it possible to enjoy the musical play of sounds and rhythms of the ancient Icelandic along with its imagery — weirdly beautiful but also flavored by dark, earthy humor. (After the hero Sigurd has slain the dragon and comes to understand the language of birds, they advise him to make the enemy who plots against him "shorter by a head.") It was clear, too, that several in the audience relished comparing Wagner's idiosyncratic versions of these characters and noting what he left out altogether.
The early-music world in general has defined itself by attempting to unearth performance practices of past eras. Bagby's efforts represent the extreme end of the spectrum. His speculative recreations of how ancient poetry might have been sung and acted in pre-literate cultures represent a boldly imaginative convergence of artistry and scholarship.