In his 1995 book Text and Act, the musicologist Richard Taruskin wrote of the historically-informed performance movement, “the very recent concept of historical authenticity is implicitly projected back into historical periods that never knew it.” To be fair to the French group Le Poème Harmonique, whose program “Venezia” opened the Miller Theatre at Columbia University’s season, their press release trumpeted an “eye-opening approach to opera using historical gesture” rather than textual authenticity. But the program also claimed to depict 17th-century Venice from the “streets to the palaces,” and, as my companion remarked, Venice doesn’t have any streets. It has canals and calle, alleys.

Le Poème Harmonique © O. Matsura
Le Poème Harmonique
© O. Matsura

Presented to the dim light of candles – perhaps appearing historic, but lighting only the stage and leaving the auditorium dark is strictly a post-Wagnerian practice – the concert packaged a medley of interesting music as quasi-mystic sound objects, illustrated by the singers with a variety of expressive but unspecific historical gestures (the stage director was Benjamin Lazar). The audience was permitted neither subtitles nor printed texts (I received texts in my press packet but the theater was too dark to read them). We were told in Miller Theatre director Melissa Smey’s introductory spiel that we would be able to understand the music’s meaning from the music and gesture alone without the semantic content of the Italian texts.

This is nonsense. While music is often called a universal language, it is not semantically specific, and the music on this program had lively narrative texts that were not discernible solely from the pitches and rhythms. My dodgy Italian gave me a rough idea of what was going on, but even someone with the musical chops to recognize the chaconne form in Francesco Manelli’s “Acceso mio core” wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell that the speaker is trying to forget an unfaithful girlfriend. Nor would the gestures, a variety of picturesque variations connoting utmost sincerity of heart, help. But it’s the storytelling and interplay of text and music that make works like Ferrari’s “Chi non sà come Amor” and Marelli’s playful “La Barchetta passaggiera” so entrancing, and this level of comprehension being absent, they were rendered as a kind of aural carpeting, running into each other with little variation.

The performances did not always help. While Jan Van Elsacker clearly articulated the text in “Dorma ancora,” Ulisse’s opening monologue from Monteverdi’s opera Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, he made little of its shift from exhausted confusion to assertive rage. The ensemble featured an inventive combination of plucked instruments and early bowed strings, all the more remarkable for the omission of a harpsichord. This occasionally shorted the music’s harmonic pungency, but does lead to a unique sound. Johannes Frisch’s lovely rendition of a violin piece by Dario Castello made me wonder why there wasn’t more purely instrumental music on the program. (Theorbist Vincent Dumestre is the group’s director.)

The program’s highlight was probably Monteverdi’s popular “Lamento della ninfa.” A single soprano portrays an abandoned nymph while three male narrators frame her plight. Claire Lefilliâtre’s smoky, dry soprano is not the celestial sound usually heard in this work, but her deeper tone was still effective. This was followed by the comic “bergamasca” “La Barchetta passaggiera,” whose drama of a bunch of funny foreign people on a boat was rendered with merry humor, if to little comprehension from the audience.

This was followed by two monologues (both solo madrigals, though the program notes did not make this clear), Ferrari’s “Chi non sà come Amor” and “Son ruinato.” Performed with engaging but unvarying intensity by Lefilliâtre, they are interesting music, but somehow failed to produce the transcendent effect that they so obviously were seeking. The rest of the program consisted of some happier music by Manelli, with confident singing from tenor Serge Goubioud, with the interlude of “Sguardo lusinghiero.”

While well performed, the program was less than the sum of its parts. The presentation seemed to presuppose that audiences prefer uncomprehending absorption over nuanced understanding, and shortchanged the complexity of the music and the interpretive skills of the performers. This is a repertory that remains underexposed in New York, and deserves to be taken seriously.