A Fine Celebration of Purcell – Man of the Theatre

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Purcell: Elin Manahan Thomas (soprano), Robert Davies (baritone), The Early Vocal Consort of Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Badinerie, Simon Jones (violin and director), Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 08.03.2013 (GPu)

Music from The Fairy Queen, King Arthur and Dido and Aeneas

The recent programme of concerts at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama has provided some splendid treats for lovers of the work of Henry Purcell (of whom I am very definitely one). In the last week of February, countertenor Iestyn Davies was the solo voice in an excellent programme of music by Purcell and his contemporaries, accompanied by the small early music ensemble Réjouissance, directed by Simon Jones. In this later concert, the vocal duo of husband and wife Elin Manhan Thomas and Robert Davies were supported by the RWCMD’s student Early Vocal Consort and a 20 piece chamber orchestra which mixed student musicians with a leavening of experienced and established figures from the British baroque ‘scene’, such as keyboard player Andrew Wilson-Dickson, lutenist and theorbo player Paula Chateauneuf, cellist Joseph Crouch and (again) leader and violinist Simon Jones (Head of Historical Performance & Contextual Studies at RWCMD). Thomas and Davies, though both still young, have considerable experience on concert and operatic stages alike and both have engaging stage presences. They clearly enjoyed working with the (largely) student forces supporting them and the feeling appeared to be mutual.

The different personnel and instrumental resources effectively ensured that the two concerts presented different aspects of Purcell’s work. Where Iestyn Davies chiefly gave his audience a selection of solo songs and arias from the Odes, Thomas and Davies were able, given the presence of a mixed choir and a larger instrumental ensemble, to present a delightful programme entirely given over to selections from three of Purcell’s major works for the theatre. It is perhaps because they do not sit easily within our modern generic divisions, that these works are still somewhat underrated. But anyone lucky enough to hear and see this performance of selected music from them will surely not be guilty of that mistake.

The greater part of the programme was given over to The Fairy Queen, the last of Purcell’s dramatic operas to be completed by Purcell. After its first production, Pierre Motteux declared (The Gentleman’s Journal, May 1692, p.26) that “the Music and Decorations are extraordinary” and added that he had “heard the Dances commended”. We didn’t, of course, have the advantage of the ‘decorations’ – which apparently included some impressive effects, if the stage-directions are to be believed. In Act IV, for example “the Scene changes to a Garden of Fountains. A Sonata plays while the Sun rises, it appears red through the Mist, as it ascends it dissipates the Vapours, and is seen in its full Lustre; then the Scene is perfectly discovered, the Fountains enrich’d with gilding, and adorn’d with Statues; the view is terminated by a Walk of Cypress Trees which lead to a delightful Bower. Before the Trees stand rows of Marble columns, which support many Walks which rise to the top of the House; the Stairs are adorn’d with Figures on Pedestals, and Rails; and Balasters on each side of ‘em. Near the top, vast Quantities of Water break out of the Hills, and fall in mighty Cascade’s to the bottom of the Scene, to feed the Fountains which are on each side. In the middle of the Stage is a very large Fountain, where the Water rises about twelve feet”. The music alone is ravishing enough, however, in piece after piece.

The evening began with a lively and expressive performance of the Symphony which opens Act IV of The Fairy Queen, in which the work of percussionist Beverley Coates and trumpeters Michael Iles and Conor Hastings was authoritative and resonant and the continuo playing was attractively crisp. The Symphony was followed by the soprano aria ‘Ye gentle Spirits of the air’ (from Act III) a magically persuasive invocation as sung by Elin Manahan Thomas. However, rather than the gentle spirits who were asked to appear, it was baritone Robert Davies who appeared, as the Drunken Poet from Act I, stumbling down the stairs from the back of the auditorium and climbing onto the stage with apt difficulty, though not before Thomas had given a tenderly compelling performance of the aria ‘If love’s a sweet passion’ which opens Act II of the opera and the orchestra had worked its way through an engaging hornpipe. The Drunken Poet is generally taken to be a portrait of Tom D’Urfey (who stuttered), author of many a lusty song. Here the ‘portrait’ (if it was really intended as one) was full of affectionate mockery. Davies’s admirable clarity of diction and the skill with which modulated the power of his voice were part of a very convincing character sketch. When soprano Natasha Page stepped forward from the Vocal Consort to join Elin Manahan Thomas as the two fairies who, supported by the rest of the Chorus, threatened him with “forty pinches … from top to toe” the humour was well sustained, even if, on this occasion, these were only ‘virtual’ pinches. Both here and later, when she was Belinda to Thomas’s Dido, Natasha Page showed herself to possess both an attractive voice and an intelligent responsiveness to text.

Where Iestyn Davies’s recital had placed particular (and beautiful) emphasis on the grave and melancholic dimensions of Purcell’s music, this recital found room for a forceful evocation of Purcell’s rich (and very English) sense of humour. In the remainder of the first half of the concert more items from The Fairy Queen justified Motteux’s early claims about the music’s “extraordinary” quality. This was pre-eminently true of ‘See Even Night herself is here’ (from Act II) in which Thomas did something like full justice to the hushed stillness of Purcell’s music and in Sleep’s entrance (just a little later in Act II) with the words “Hush, no more, be silent all” in which the balance of soloist Robert Davies and the work of the chorus (increasingly impressive as the evening went on) and orchestra was delightful. There was a considerable change of mood in the orchestral piece which closed the first half of the concert, ‘the Dance for a Chinese Man and Woman’ from Act IV.

There was more to come from The Fairy Queen after the interval, though proceedings began with music from another of Purcell’s semi-operas: King Arthur: (‘Trumpet Tune’, ‘What Ho, Thou Genius of this Isle’ and ‘What Power Art Thou’). The highlight here was Davies’s performance of the Genius’s aria ‘What Power Art Thou’ from Act III of the work:

What power art thou, who from below Hast made me rise unwillingly and slow From beds of everlasting snow? See’st thou not how stiff and wondrous old, Far unfit to bear the bitter cold, I can scarcely move or draw my breath? Let me, let me freeze again to death

sung by “the genius of this isle” as he is woken from his frozen sleep by Cupid. The natural-seeming exactness with which Davies ‘grew’ his voice from a quiet and closed beginning to a resonant and full toned climax was a masterclass in vocal characterisation. The work of the strings, in the chromatically shivering writing of Purcell’s accompaniment was also very impressive here. Four further items from The Fairy Queen followed, beginning with Thomas’s moving reading of the beautiful and poignant ‘Plaint’ from Act V:

O let me ever, ever weep,

My eyes no more shall welcome sleep;

I’ll hide me from the sight of day

And sigh and sigh my soul away.

He’s gone, he’s gone, his loss deplore

For I shall never see him more.

The plangent intelligence with which Thomas interpreted text and music – it is a real achievement to make so complex a passacaglia sound so naturally human – was stunningly beautiful. Like so much else that we heard in this concert it reminded one what an astonishing repository of ‘extraordinary’ music The Fairy Queen is. ‘The Dance of the Haymakers’ from Act III, which followed, may not reach to quite such heights, but it has its own more succinct charms and is a striking affirmation of the continuing importance of the English tradition in Purcell’s music, for all his re-creative absorption of French and Italian influences. The chorus and orchestra made a very fine job of the Act IV hymn to the sun “Hail! Great Parent of us all” – a key passage in the whole work’s musical and dramatic dialogue between light and dark and richly expressive of the characteristically Purcellian response to the beauty of life, a response in which celebration and the sense of inevitable loss are always finely balanced and simultaneously present. The last music we heard from The Fairy Queen was the brief but lovely ‘Symphony while the Swans Come Forward’, from Act III, music which accompanies a kind of transformation scene, described as follows in the libretto:

While the symphony is played the two swans come closer, swimming through the arches, and approach the bank. They are about to come alongside when they turn towards the fairies and dance with them. At this moment the bridge vanishes and the curved bushes stand upright. Four wild men enter and frighten the fairies away. They, too, now execute a dance before running off.

As the Purcell scholar Margaret Campbell suggests (Henry Purcell: Glory of His Age, 1993), “The cardboard swans would glide off imperceptibly as two suitably white-feathered ballerinas suddenly appeared out of nowhere”. The magic of Purcell’s accompanying music must surely have done much to encourage any necessary “suspension of disbelief” in the audience in Dorset Garden.

Up to this point this rewarding concert had been based on two of Purcell’s semi-operas and had been made up of items from the two works arranged in an order of the performers’ devising. The concert ended by turning to Purcell’s only ‘through-composed’ opera, Dido and Aeneas, represented by the last five items from that great work, heard in the order intended by librettist (Nahum Tate) and composer. As such it made a powerful conclusion. The very promising Natasha Page again moved stage front to sing the role of Belinda alongside Thomas’s Dido and Davies’s Aeneas. In ‘Your Counsel All is Urged in Vain’, Page nicely embodied Belinda’s well-meaning advice and encouragement, seriously limited by Belinda’s lack of worldly experience and by her not being possessed, unlike Dido and Aeneas, of one of those “great minds” which against themselves conspire / And shun the cure they most desire” (to quote the chorus which immediately follows). The conflicted emotions of both Dido and Aeneas were well portrayed by both singers, especially considering that they were singing (and we hearing) their dialogue ‘cold’ and out of all theatrical and narrative context. The same considerations did something to limit the often overwhelming impact of ‘Thy hand Belinda’ and ‘When I am laid in earth’. Thomas sang beautifully here, and it was no reflection on her if Dido’s final utterances were not quite so emotionally devastating as they can be when well sung at the end of a full performance of the opera. Yet, it would be wrong to end this review on even a minor downbeat. Taken as a whole it provided very persuasive advocacy of Purcell’s greatness and of his understanding of the theatre of his day. John Dryden’s ‘Ode on the Death of Mr. Henry Purcell’ ends with a splendid apotheosis, the poetic equivalent of a great baroque ceiling painting:

We beg not hell our Orpheus to restore; Had he been there, Their sovereign’s fear Had sent him back before. The power of harmony too well they know: He long ere this had tuned their jarring sphere, And left no hell below.

The heavenly choir, who heard his notes from high, Let down the scale of music from the sky; They handed him along, And all the way he taught, and all the way they sung. Ye brethren of the lyre, and tuneful voice, Lament his lot, but at your own rejoice: Now live secure, and linger out your days; The gods are pleased alone with Purcell’s lays, Nor know to mend their choice. The more one hears of Purcell, in fine performances such as these, the less absurdly extravagant such language seems.

Glyn Pursglove