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Henry Purcell, for better and for worse

Musica Angelica captures the grandness of the score in the

February 17, 2009|MARK SWED | MUSIC CRITIC

Henry Purcell's life was short. He died in 1695, two months after his 36th birthday. Legend has it he got a fatal chill when his wife, angered at his carousing, locked him out on a cold November night in London: brought low by a scold and a cold, as the Purcell scholar Curtis Price put it.

He is still, this 350th anniversary of his birth, brought low, but now by history and his musical carousing. After three centuries, he retains the label Orpheus Britannicus. He has inspired English composers -- particularly unconventional ones -- right up to Pete Townshend of the Who.

But this quirky Orpheus travels surprisingly poorly. Purcell's English settings need translation across centuries. His tunes were fabulously popular in his day, and some still are. But he wrote this popular music for instruments and for occasions no longer suited to our needs.

Sunday afternoon, the period instrument ensemble Musica Angelica presented his most ambitious work, "The Fairy Queen," at the Broad Stage, and it demonstrated, in pretty much equal measure, the pleasures and problems of Purcell.

"The Fairy Queen" is typical of the Purcell oddity. This is two hours of music for, but not of, "A Midsummer Night's Dream." The forces include orchestra with trumpets, chorus and vocal soloists. The theatrical imagination is vast, and elaborate stage machinery is required.

But no words of Shakespeare were set. The author of the texts is unknown. Purcell created diversions to be inserted in the play that only subtly relate to the plot. The effect is more like Monty Python's catchphrase "and now for something completely different." No one these days dares attempt a full production, which would be a weird five- or six-hour affair of enormous expense.

Drunken poets are pinched by fairies. The allegorical figures of Night, Mystery, Secresie and Sleep summon a night of magic to "make the pleasure last / A thousand, thousand several ways." Nymphs, dryads, fauns and green savages dance. Fountains and grand statuary appear, and the seasons sing their songs.

The last act is not to be believed. Juno appears in a chariot drawn by peacocks and, with a wave of her wand, creates a hanging Chinese garden containing myriad exotic life forms. A Chinese man and woman sing of the Garden of Eden and Daphne while monkeys dance. Pedestals of Chinese porcelain vases rise for Hymen's grand procession.

The music is, from start to finish, delicious. Whether conveying desire, delirium or the fleeting frisson of an unexpected peck on the cheek, Purcell was to the manner born. But how very difficult this combination of quirkiness and delicacy is to pull off in concert.

Led by its music director, Martin Haselbock, Musica Angelica captured some of the grandness of the score. This ensemble has become one of America's best early music groups in recent years, and although the playing was slightly tentative at first, it became sure and properly celebratory by the end.

The vocal soloists were sopranos Lisa Saffer and Catherine Webster and bass Michael Dean. The small chorus was the Concord Ensemble, normally a male sextet here expanded to a mixed octet. Haselbock relied on Concord for some solo singing as well. Tenor Pablo Cora was a standout.

What was missing was context. There were no texts supplied. The very brief plot synopses in the program were of Shakespeare, not "The Fairy Queen," and thus useless. Some singers made words clearer than others. Dean and Cora kidded around a bit in the drunken poet scene. But the bulk of the singing was score-bound. Yet if in his sincere presentation and emphasis on musical structure Haselbock failed to suggest Purcell's essential eccentricity, he did, at least, put across the music lovingly well.

Saffer was consistently winning, whether cheery or, in the great plaint "O let me weep," bringing a tear to the eye. Dean's contribution to the nuttiness department was much needed, as was his welcomingly clear intonation and enunciation. Webster proved a capable last-minute replacement.

A word about the Broad. Five months after its opening, the 500-seat hall in Santa Monica is beginning to find its sound. Materials are settling and the acoustics have been fine-tuned, and all the news is good.

Voices fill the space with ease. Even slight-toned period instruments have presence without the penalty of a too-bright edge. Haselbock was careless in his stage setup. The harpsichord, for instance, was turned away from my half of the audience. Trumpets and timpani were off to the side. The chorus was too far back to make a lively contribution.

But the Broad is forgiving, and the orchestra and singers (and even the harpsichord) sounded good anyway.


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