Madison Bach Musicians will make us laugh, cry and rethink coffee

Trevor Stephenson pairs Bach with Purcell opera
Madison Bach Musicians will make us laugh, cry and rethink coffee
Photos courtesy of the Madison Bach Musicians
Soprano Chelsea Shephard, left, will play Dido, and soprano Nola Richardson is Belinda in the opera "Dido & Aeneas" with the Madison Bach Musicians.

Trevor Stephenson, founder of the Madison Bach Musicians, has developed a reputation for impeccable performances of Baroque music on original or authentically reconstructed instruments. MBM audiences also enjoy Stephenson’s humorous and informative pre-concert lectures.

The final performances of MBM’s season, April 7 and 8, will give us more opportunities to laugh a lot, possibly cry a little and experience great readings of two wildly different masterpieces.

The opener is J.S. Bach’s so-called “Coffee Cantata,” composed around 1735. For a composer whose music is so serious and deeply religious bordering on the forbidding, this work provides a rare opportunity to laugh out loud. Cantatas are usually sacred in nature. In fact, they were often part and parcel of the Lutheran services at the Leipzig churches for which Bach wrote over the last 25 years of his life. This piece, however, verges on comic opera — not a form Bach was known to dabble in.

In a breezy 20 minutes or so, we learn the plight of a young woman addicted to the beverage then sweeping Europe. Her father does not approve, but the girl sings, “If I couldn’t, three times a day, be allowed to drink my little cup of coffee, in my anguish I will turn into a shriveled-up roast goat.” That’s undoubtedly a sentiment many a coffee lover has felt, especially before that first cup on a Monday. Bach himself was a regular at Zimmerman’s Coffee Haus in Leipzig, often directing small ensembles there and working on transcriptions. The first performance of this piece was probably in another Leipzig coffee den.

But it is the post-intermission work on MBM’s spring program that really catches the eye: Purcell’s great opera “Dido and Aeneas.” Just under an hour, the work tells the story of the defeated Aeneas’s brief but intense relationship with Dido, queen of Carthage. Her concluding aria is so well known (“When I am laid in Earth”) that the complete work has been largely overshadowed. True to form, Stephenson is bringing in a 14-member Baroque ensemble (complete with a theorbo — think of an oversized lute), incorporating dancers and stellar vocalists.

But really, why should anyone other than rabid Baroque music fans hear this? “Somehow I find that the story carries a modern psychological resonance,” Stephenson replies. “Dido is depressed when the work opens, but is urged to take a good look at this Aeneas, a military hero.”

Sure enough, they meet, and although Dido at first resists Aeneas’s proposal of marriage, she agrees to wed him. But as a prototypical opera, there’s no simple happy-ever-after to be had.

“Things quickly go wrong,” Stephenson says. “Aeneas is reminded, with some supernatural help, that he needs to complete his life’s mission — the founding of a second Troy, which will be Rome. ‘Oh, I almost forgot about that,’ he seems to say.”

When they meet for the final time, the tragedy is well entrenched, and yet, “they confront each other, and Dido already knows what Aeneas is going to tell her. He can see that she’s crushed by his decision to leave — much more so than he anticipated — and so he says, ‘I’ll stay.’ ‘Uh-uh,’ Dido replies. ‘The fact that you would even consider leaving me. I don’t want to ever talk to you again.'”

Stephenson has enlisted more than his usual core of players for his concert. Expect David Ronis, director of University Opera, Karen McShane-Hellenbrand of the University of Wisconsin-Madison dance department, and a returning Marc Vallon, Baroque specialist conductor at UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.

Stephenson explains his disparate pairing of widely loved masterpieces this way: “Once you laugh, you are opened up — and this makes the tragedy all the stronger.”

So bring caffeine, a sense of humor humor and tissues to the First Unitarian Society Atrium Auditorium on Saturday, April 7, at 7:30 p.m. or Sunday, April 8, at 3:30 p.m. And don’t forget that special pre-concert lecture 45 minutes before each performance.

Greg Hettmansberger covers jazz, opera and classical music for madisonmagazine.com.