French impressionist composers had an odd obsession with Edgar Allan Poe. Years after the author's death in 1849, seminal composers like Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel and Andre Caplet remained fixated on his work. Poe's hallucinogenic imagery and dark themes seemed to complement the composers' love for eerie tonal colors, augmented chords and frenetic melodies.
The artistic ties remain striking, decades after Poe penned his final word and Caplet wrote his last chamber piece. Artists from the Curious Theatre Company and the Colorado Chamber Players revisted the connection Sunday, offering a paired performance of Poe's "Masque of the Red Death" and Andre Caplet's "Conte Fantastique."
It was an evocative mix of words and music, combining Poe's feverish writing style, Caplet's broad palatte of sounds and the feel of a vintage radio drama; it was a creative marriage that summoned a strong sense of impending doom.
Curious Theatre Artistic Company Member Mare Trevathan narrated, reading Poe's text between intense musical stretches from the CCP players: Barbara Hamilton-Primus on viola, Judith McIntyre on cello, Paul Primus on violin, Nanette Shannon on piano and David Waldman on violin.
The intensity from Trevathan and from each member of the chamber ensemble was spot-on. Poe's story became vibrant and powerful from the first sentences, an effect due in large part to Trevathan's compelling energy.
She described the seclusive Prince Propsero, the nobleman who sequesters himself in his palace as his people are decimated by a mysterious plague. She spoke with unnerving suggestiveness when she described Prospero's masquerade ball, a celebration that draws other nobles to cloistered chambers as the sickness wages among the general population. The effect became downright eerie when she described the arrival of a masked stranger, an imposing figure in a red mask who bears menacingly on the host.
Each stretch of narration found a complement in powerful music from the quintet. Hamilton-Primus offered sustained stretches of resonant viola notes during key parts of Trevathan's narration -- a minimalistic effect that seemed to drive the story. Between readings of Poe's dense, distressing language, the five musicians offered a feverish interpretation of Caplet's piece.
Caplet, a contemporary of Claude Debussy, never attained the fame of his fellow Impressionist. He composed in relative obscurity, winning the Prix de Rome in 1901 but spending most of his time preparing orchestrations for Debussy. He contracted pleurisy during World War I and died at the age of 46.
The quintet's performance of "Conte Fantastique" showed just how much potential was lost with Caplet's premature passing. Poe's tale of hubris and comeuppance found accompaniment in augmented seventh, ninth and eleventh chords; cascades of piano lines; flurries of string statements and incisive, insistent statements from the violins and viola.
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Key parts of Poe's narration -- particularly when the narrator tells of the nervous smiles on the faces of the musicians at the masquerade ball -- came to life with the real-life musicians' additions. Violinists knocked on their instruments at references to knocks on the door; the descriptions of the separate chambers at Prospero's ball could very well have described the backstage room at the Curious.
All told, the hybrid of narration and chamber music put both Poe and Caplet in a new light.
Trevathan and the Colorado Chamber Players will offer a second performance of "The Masque of the Red Death" and "Conte Fantastique" at noon on Oct. 19 at the Boulder Public Library.
The performance was part of a series of free "Backstage Pass Events" at the Curious, literary and musical performances that open up matinee performances at the theater. The next collaboration -- a reading of Kate Light's poetry and music by Mozart -- will take place at 12:45 p.m. on Nov. 14 at the Curious, 1080 Acoma St. in Denver.