The great thing about Rossini's Petite Messe Solennelle, an evening-length work for chorus, vocal soloists, and keyboards, is that nearly every adjective, from the silly to the sublime, is somewhere supported by music.
Choral Arts of Philadelphia gave this 1863 piece an earnest, thoughtful effort Saturday at St. Mark's Church, the first of three local performances this season. It was a fearlessly clear guided tour of Petite Messe's highs and lows - which sometimes were heard simultaneously. The concluding "Agnus Dei" has some of the most distilled vocal writing in all of Rossini, yet it has amazingly pedestrian keyboard accompaniment.
Rossini's last big work reveals the limits of his resources in this strangely conceived parlor Mass that sounds almost like a cabaret Mass that Erik Satie might have written two generations later.
Overall, the portrait emerges of a composer who, in his prime, displayed his genius often but proved it only occasionally, then stopped at the height of his game. After a long, depression-ridden retirement in Paris, he tried to purge himself of his ear-tickling trademark music, and, at times, achieved that in Petite Messe.
The Choral Arts' historically informed performance gave a revisionist view of a piece that hasn't much performance history to revise. Music director Matthew Glandorf's low-vibrato choral tone revealed points where Rossini was seriously probing sacred mysteries. Glandorf downplayed what we now hear as inconsistencies - "oom-pah" rhythms and the street-accordion sonorities of the harmonium that was kept on muted good behavior. Texts were sung in French-accented Latin.
Mezzo-soprano Maren Montalbano, one of four vocal soloists, sang a wonderful "Agnus Dei."
But soprano Julianne Baird had the strongest personality. In her hands, vocal lines that often are sung for mere effect had a Chopinesque rubato common in 1860s Paris that allowed each phrase to emerge with its own individual shape. Her voice is slimmer than most Rossinians, but the interior intensity she gave to the words (unlike his operas, they aren't just along for the ride) was so effective the performance was among her best ever, even though as a Baroque-era specialist, she was a century out of her comfort zone.