Glee club to perform mixed-media staging of Carissimi’s ‘Jephte’

The concert will feature projections designed by graduate student Camilla Tassi in order to enhance the audience's experience.

by Elizabeth Garrison | 2/15/18 12:00am

After performing German composer Felix Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” at its fall concert, the Dartmouth College Glee Club will continue the biblical hero theme in its winter concert Friday with Giacomo Carissimi’s oratorio “Jephte.” “Jephte” tells the story of Jephthah, an Old Testament judge who promises God that he will sacrifice the first person who comes out to greet him after battle in exchange for victory over a rival tribe. When that person turns out to be his only daughter, Jephthah has to suffer the consequences. While “Jephte” is traditionally presented with limited staging and visual elements, director Louis Burkot decided to incorporate mixed media into the concert by adding projections designed by graduate student Camilla Tassi. 

During the fall, Tassi staged a multimedia project on Carissimi in the Hopkins Center for the Arts Garage. Following this project, Burkot invited her to design projections for the glee club’s winter concert in order to enhance the audience’s experience.  

“Anything to me that makes the audience able to ... take away as much as they can to me is a great resource,” Burkot said. “What I like so much about what [Tassi] did is that since she is a trained musician, everything that she does visually is really meant to enhance what’s already there in the music.” 

Tassi, a soprano in the glee club and a member of Dartmouth’s masters program in digital musics, has a bachelor’s of science in computer science, a bachelor’s of arts in music and an Italian studies minor from the University of Notre Dame. Tassi said that her mission is to help the audience to understand the world of the composer. 

“We hear the name ‘Carissimi,’ and most of the time, people are like, ‘Okay, who’s that?’” Tassi said. “And probably 90 percent of people will be like, ‘So what?’ ...  So my approach to this project is ‘Let me try to bring the audience into the world of the composer.’” 

To accomplish this goal for the concert, Tassi assigned visual cues to changes in the music, using different colors to capture the variation of “texture” within “Jephte.” As an oratorio, which includes a choir, soloists and arias, “Jephte” switches back and forth between single and multiple voices. She also included paintings by Baroque composers that fit the oratorio’s narrative, English translations of the music and images from the church where the piece was first performed. 

“We sort of lose a layer when we take a piece today and perform it in a concert hall,” Tassi said. “When you think about it, back then, this was not an onstage piece. They just stood and sang it, and you have a very different experience as an audience member if you’re sitting in a church that has frescos and vaults ... as you’re experiencing the music.” 

Tassi’s goal, then, is to bring some of those historical elements into Friday night’s performances.

“We don’t live in the 1600s Italy, and we don’t speak Latin so this is my attempt to create a layer of accessibility,” Tassi said.

In addition to incorporating visuals in the concert, Burkot extended the stage so the audiences can sit onstage with the performers to create a more intimate experience. 

“Most of the oratorio is very direct and declamatory, and I thought it would be best to have people close at hand, one-on-one,” Burkot said. “It also gave me a chance to have the singers have the experience of communicating to the people in a very personal way. So, a lot of the work is staged so that certain singers are singing directly to the audience.” 

Soomin Kim ’20 is a soprano in the glee club and has been a member of the club since her freshman fall. Kim said that the staging of the concert allows the soloists to shine. 

“I think the audience will really enjoy the visuals — not just the projections but also of the choir,” Kim said. “We have different formations, and we really set it up so that the soloists shine in their parts. We’ll move out or to the side for them. We have about 10 soloists, so there is a lot of variety.” 

Kim said that she was initially apprehensive about the onstage seating, since she is so used to the separation between the performer and the audience but is now looking forward to the new staging. 

“Usually it’s the stage and the audience,” Kim said. “There is no in between, so this concert is going to be very different.” 

During rehearsals, Burkot has been challenging the singers to focus on building an emotional connection with the piece rather than just the technical aspect of the music. 

“I’m trying to get them to express in a way that’s declamatory — in other words, not singing the piece but just declaiming the words and letting that carry the energy and the emotion,” Burkot said. “You learn to sing it, and then you put that aside and just deliver the words.” 

Burkot also is looking forward to the final movement in “Jephte” in which the daughter grieves over never having the opportunity to bear children before her death. 

“The piece ends with this absolutely stunning lament about her demise,” Burkot said. “It ends in an almost redemptive way that’s beautiful and powerful.”

The glee club will perform its winter concert this Friday, Feb. 16, at 6:30 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. in Spaulding Auditorium.