Metrotainment: Coffee, anyone?

Revital Raviv will star with the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra when she performs Johann Sebastian Bach’s ‘The Coffee Cantata,’ a humorous tale about addiction to caffeine.

Revital Raviv (photo credit: Courtesy)
Revital Raviv
(photo credit: Courtesy)
There is a popularly held notion about not having to be Jewish to appreciate a Jewish joke so, perhaps, the same goes for performing topical works of art. While she says she does enjoy the occasional cup of coffee, soprano singer Revital Raviv admits she isn’t exactly a caffeine junkie. “I’d say coffee is an important part of my life, but there are times when I can take it or leave it.”
Fluctuating coffee flurries notwithstanding, Raviv is clearly capable of carrying out her singing duties, which will be evident when she appears in four concerts with the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra (JBO), starting tomorrow evening in Haifa, and following with dates in Ganei Tikva, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Raviv’s starring role is in Johann Sebastian Bach’s humorous The Coffee Cantata. The comic piece forms part of the JBO’s Four Seasons program, which opens with Johann Heinrich Schmelzer’s Lamenta sopra la morte di Ferdinand III (Lament for Ferdinand the Third), followed by the aforesaid beverage-based work by Bach, and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.
The “pretext” for the inclusion of the Bach piece, say JBO personnel, is to mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of coffee in Europe. As there is strong evidence to suggest that the beverage made it to England no later than the early 1580s, that landmark appears to be somewhat chronologically askew. Still, why not have a bit of fun if you can, right? That is certainly a sentiment to which Raviv subscribes.
“There are so many wonderful serious works by Bach, with religious content, so it’s nice to do something more like light entertainment,” she proffers. This will be the first time that Raviv has performed in The Coffee Cantata and she says she is greatly looking forward to it. “I am gradually working my way through Bach’s non-religious cantatas,” she notes. “I really enjoy them.”
The Coffee Cantata tells an amusing tale about addiction to coffee, a pressing social problem in 18thcentury Leipzig, where the work premiered.
The cantata’s libretto was written by Christian Friedrich Henrici, and features lines such as: “If I can’t drink my bowl of coffee three times daily then, in my torment, I will shrivel up like a piece of roast goat.” That mind-set would have gone down well with the patrons of Zimmerman’s Coffee House in Leipzig, where Bach’s Collegium Musicum, founded by Georg Philipp Telemann in 1702, would have originally performed the work.
In fact, Raviv suggests that caffeine consumption is not a prerequisite of the job in hand, and that there may be some other thematic connotations to offer here. “I think you can look at coffee as something of an allegory in this context. There are all sorts of things that bring us pleasure, but of which we really should not partake. I’m not perfect either but I try to do the right thing.”
While Bach eschewed opera composition per se, The Coffee Cantata is something akin to a mini-comic opera.
There are three characters in the work: the narrator, performed in the JBO’s forthcoming concerts by tenor Nadav Inbar; Schlendrian – whose name literally means “stick-in-the-mud” – sung by bass Oded Reich; and Schlendrian’s daughter Lieschen, performed by Raviv.
The work is based on playful banter between the three characters with, for example, Schlendrian animatedly telling the audience how much he is appalled with his daughter’s coffee obsession.
Lieschen tells her father to take it easy, but he desperately looks for some way to wean his daughter off caffeine, mixing threats with promises of rewards if she follows his advice. A cat-and-mouse situation ensues. Schlendrian offers to find his daughter a suitor if she goes “cold turkey,” while she appears to consent to the arrangement. Meanwhile, the narrator explains to the audience that, in fact, Lieschen secretly informs any potential beau that he must allow her to drink coffee if he wants to marry her.
As with opera, Raviv says it is not enough just to sing the cantata part sonorously and accurately.
There is a strong thespian element to the role, but Raviv appears to be up to the job, both in terms of training and of personal attributes. She developed an interest in performing music as a member of the Moran Children’s Choir, and eventually opted for a career in classical music. She studied at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance and later at the Royal College of Music in London, spending five years total in Britain, and performed and toured extensively with the acclaimed New London Consort Baroque and Renaissance music ensemble.
Raviv’s work with the British ensemble left her with valuable insight on how to approach a wide range of centuries- old material. She says that elements of changing times, and social and human development, also need to be addressed when tackling works written so long ago.
“Any humorous musical and or theatrical work, like with opera, has to deal with the possibility that the material may have originally been funny but might not be considered comic today, as audiences have become more cynical. Today, we don’t laugh at things which people, two or three hundred years ago, once considered funny.”
According to Raviv, there is nothing wrong with composers taking a less reverent approach to art. “It is interesting to see great composers, like Bach, trying their hand in both camps, with serious works and with lighter material,” she says, although she notes that performers often have different ideas about how to present the material. “I once sang a Bach aria somewhere in Europe and, afterwards, [German soprano] Barbara Schlick told me: ‘That’s not the way to sing Bach. That was too emotional.’ So I thought she’s probably right, but the reviews of my next performance said that my delivery was too cold and impersonal.”
There will be nothing overly clinical about the JBO’s or Raviv’s performance in The Coffee Cantata. Hopefully, no one will have ODed on caffeine either.
• The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra will perform at the John the Baptist Church in Haifa on February 11 at 12 noon, Merkaz Habama in Ganei Tikva on February 15 at 8:30 p.m., Enav Center in Tel Aviv on February 19 at 8 p.m., and at the Jerusalem Theater on February 21 at 8 p.m.