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Art elevated to euphoric heights of pleasure and truth

THE LOST SPINDLE

A Romance-in-Song.

LiveOak & Company.

Fogg Art Museum, Sunday, March 12.

By JONATHAN RICHMOND

RARELY IS ART ELEVATED to such euphoric heights of both pleasure and truth-in-artifice as in LiveOak's remarkable production of The Lost Spindle. The drama, previously performed -- with great success -- as an event concurrent with the 1987 Boston Early Music Festival, draws on two sixteenth century artistic traditions: secular Spanish part-songs and Italian Commedia dell'Arte.

What Nancy Knowles, Frank Wallace and Steve Yakutis have done -- and done brilliantly -- is to sew together a story which unites comedy and pathos in extraordinarily beautiful music. It is dynamically performed, and with vivid action that boldly sketches the exterior personalities of the characters depicted, but then takes the audience on a tour to their most inner worlds, too.

The tale is of Ursula, who falls asleep while spinning wool. In her dream she is seranaded by the shepherd Juan. Awakening is cruel, as Mama promptly has her married off to the ghastly money-lender Toribio, leaving her to lust after Juan. She ends up throwing Toribio out of bed, gets bopped on the head, and is then dead.

The songs have been carefully chosen: each fits perfectly into the drama, developing the story and its characters compellingly, inviting the audience to enter LiveOak's special world, and dance and reflect, laugh or cry along with them.

Characterization is wonderful: nobody could sit through this display of dramatic -- and yet intensely human -- virtuosity without being snared by its magic. The sweet-voiced Nancy Knowles never fails to charm. Her singing is melifluous and pure; the emotions she expresses are penetrating. On opening we see her carding wool and hautingly singing "Je Fille Quant Dieu," dating from 1545. A dilemma -- how to play the flute while wearing a mask -- is neatly solved by hanging her face on the back of Steve Yakutis' head. The character it depicts remains fully alive there, while a flute tune deliciously issues forth.

Yakutis wears several faces, and steps from persona to persona with aplomb. Sporting an especially horrific mask depicting Mama (a really evil-looking old crone), and adopting the necessarily exaggerated gestures of Commedia dell'Arte, he paints deep colors for the audience's imagination to absorb and elaborate. Yakutis also depicts a truly brutish Toribio, swaggering about with his money bag, and with a large pink baseball bat bopping Ursula to death.

There is a lovely scene before this happens, in which Ursula uses her shawl as a torreador's cloth in an attempt to fool Toribio in his bullish charges.

Wallace has a voice of nectar -- passionate and honest -- and there were many moments when he was intensely moving. Desposaste Os, Senora, a jealous lament, was one of several numbers which contained much deeply heartfelt singing.

Act II ended with the beautiful and also biting harmonies of Digas tu, "Tell us, Love, about deceit." Act III began with the singers in the galleries, their voices reverberating splendidly in the receptive acoustics of the Fogg Museum. Darkness is heralded by a mystic bluish light, and LiveOak's music took on its greatest concentration -- and powers of poetry -- in the stillness of a most romantic night. Knowles and Wallace both sang with great sensuality here, Ursula's heart engaging with Juan's as did both their hearts with those of ours, the fortunate audience.

The last scene of all is also the most touching. Here Ursula is dead, her maiden's face replaced with a death mask held high, heavenwards. Ay! Linda Amiga, "Ah, beautiful friend whom I shall never see again," Wallace sings with a plaintive sorrow. The atmosphere is very serious, Wallace's tone tragic, but the ending of the show leaves the audience spiritually refreshed; renewed as well as entertained.

LiveOak is recording The Lost Spindle and other music for Titanic Records, and it is to be hoped that we will also see them more often in Boston-area performances. Their unusual ability to simultaneously bring early music to life and provide performances on a level of drama rarely matched on any theatrical or opera stage, should be brought before a larger audience. They would be a smash hit on the early music series of the Museum of Fine Arts, for example, or as part of the many other early music activities that take place in Boston.