Sunday, 14 August 2016

Proms at … Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Arcangelo/Cohen, 13 August 2016

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Purcell – The History of Timon of Athens, The Man-Hater: excerpts
Blow – Venus and Adonis: excerpts
Purcell – The Fairy Queen: excerpts
Locke – The Tempest: excerpts
Purcell (attrib.) – The Tempest: excerpts

Katherine Watson (soprano)
Samuel Boden (tenor)
Callum Thorpe (bass)

Alessandro Talevi (movement director)
Jonathan Cohen (director, harpsichord, organ)


This highly enjoyable Prom, part of 2016’s ‘Proms at…’ mini-series, took as its guiding concept the reopening of London’s theatres following the Restoration, focusing in particular upon musical and dramatic responses to Shakespeare. Purcell, rightly, loomed large, with John Blow and Matthew Locke joining him. Receiving their Proms premieres were the excerpts from Timon of Athens and those from Locke’s The Tempest.

The Timon of Athens excerpts opened with a Curtain Tune of decidedly ‘world’-‘jazz’ inflection. I have nothing against such an approach at all, but it seemed a bit of an easy option here, as if offering a touch of – highly predictable – ‘swing’ and some ‘colourful’ percussion was all that was required. We seemed on surer ground with ‘I spy Celia’. Our tenor and bass, Samuel Boden and Callum Thorpe, dressed in matching white T-shirts and jeans offered strutting performances: ‘I am redder, then I please her’. Boden’s ‘I see she flies me’ showed off again his splendid, light but not too light tenor, the coloratura negotiated with nonchalant ease. There was languorous contrast in Dryden’s lines, ‘Were she but kind whom I adore/I might live longer, but not love her more.’

What we still believe to be the first English opera, Venus and Adonis followed, again, as in all cases this afternoon, in excerpted form. Two recorders and harpsichord gave us the Act I ‘Tune for flutes’, in nicely unhurried fashion, again a welcome contrast with what had gone before. Further music from the first act – a sequence opening ‘Venus! … Adonis!’ and the music surrounded by the Hunters’ Music – followed. Thorpe’s chocolatey bass seemed ideally suited to the role of Adonis, whilst his Venus, Katherine Watson, proved equally stylish, ‘English’, but in a good way. The Hunters’ Music again revived the ‘popular’ element, this time with tambourine; much to its benefit, it was varied, more intense, the second time around. (Yes, I know I am being a bit of a puritan; please forgive me.)

Music from The Fairy Queen followed, excerpts selected from Acts I, III, and V. The opening Prelude (First Music) was fast and furious – for better or for worse. The following Hornpipe was well judged, with a winning swing, colourful too. The Act V Prelude showed an air of unease, followed by the Second Music-Rondeau, which proved graceful of lilt. ‘If Love’s a Sweet Passion’ benefited from a lovely oboe solo, sounding almost like a soft-spoken trumpet at times, at others thoroughly pastoral. Dances from that same, third act followed: for the Fairies, a Hornpipe, and for the Haymakers, the ‘Dialogue between Coridon and Mopsa’ just before that final dance. Done up in lipstick, newly clad in a pashmina, Boden played the countertenor-ish maiden, blessed with beautiful deportment too. Alessandro Talevi had certainly prepared the participants well for a highly erotic conclusion. The Chaconne: Dance for a Chinese man and woman rounded off the first half.

Opening the second were two pieces from Matthew Locke’s incidental music to The Tempest, a 1674 production much loved by Nell Gwynne. The music – Curtain Tune and Dance of the Fantastick Spirits – was interesting to hear, but paled somewhat next to that of Purcell (even ‘Purcell, attrib.’). Purcell’s 1695 music, if indeed it is by Purcell, followed. Thorpe’s rendition of ‘Arise, ye subterranean winds’ was commanding, duly declamatory. Watson’s ‘Full fathom five’, later joined by her tenor and bass colleagues, proved a charming item to follow. Her ‘Dry those eyes’ offered a vocal line both clear and melancholic, with fine playing too from the members of Arcangelo. Finally, ‘Neptune’s Masque’ provided opportunities, well taken, for all to shine. Neptune’s lengthy air again received a commanding yet subtle performance from Thorpe. Aeolus, summoned by the god, appeared in black leather jacket and shades all over the theatre. His ‘Your awful voice’ was as agile both vocally and in stagecraft. There was some able fiddling too. The closing chorus had more than a hint of ‘authentic’ Purcellian melancholy, whoever the actual composer may have been.

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