“The Indian Queen” was the promotional title for the selections from Henry Purcell’s dramatic music which the Handel and Haydn Society’s period instrument orchestra and chorus under Harry Christophers brought to very enthusiastic audiences at Jordan Hall and Sanders Theatre this weekend.
A master of current vocal and instrumental styles, reflecting both French and Italian tendencies but with particular sensitivity to the rhythms of English diction, Purcell was much in demand as a composer of music for the Anglican Church and of celebratory odes, turning to theater music only during the last years of his short life. (He died in 1695.) English audiences showed little enthusiasm for French or Italian opera. Even after the reopening of theaters after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and the return of Charles I from exile in France, their preference was for spoken plays in English, whether ribald comedy or grand historical drama, with incidental music added to highlight battle scenes, invocations of the supernatural, seductions, drinking scenes, and the like. Purcell’s only true opera, Dido and Aeneas, was apparently not performed in public during the composer’s lifetime. The remainder of his music for the theater consisted of incidental music for spoken plays.
Handel and Haydn’s program opened with the “Scene of the drunken poet” from Act I of The Fairy Queen. The anonymous text is clearly a reworking of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. After an introductory series of lively French-style dances the poet, sung in suitably boozy manner by bass Jonathan Best, staggered on stage, only to be set upon by two sprightly fairies in sparkling black body suits (sopranos Margot Rood and Erika Vogel). They pinched him mercilessly, then slunk off, leaving him blindfolded and miserable. Purcell died before completing The Indian Queen, and the music for the Act V “Masque of Hymen” was composed by his brother Daniel. The text, by John Dryden and Robert Howard, satirizes the tedium of married bliss. Hymen (Jonathan Best) solemnly pronounces his blessing, echoed by a follower (Margot Rood) and the chorus. They are angrily contested by the unhappy couple, bass Woodrow Bynum and soprano Sonja Tengblad (replacing Teresa Wakim, who was ill). Finally, Cupid (Margot Rood) and his followers (tenor Zachary Wilder, basses Bradford Gleim and Donald Wilkinson) arrive to set things right. Daniel Purcell’s music is not up to his brother’s standard, but the soloists, choir, and orchestra more than made up for its deficiencies, the sweetness of a recorder duet (Stephen Hammer and Owen Watkins) contrasting with the ringing tones of Bruce Hall’s trumpet obbligato in virtuoso competition with Zachary Wilder’s forthright—if occasionally marred by too much vibrato — tenor. Cupid (sung with lovely persuasiveness by Sonja Tengblad) triumphed again in the marvelous “Frost Scene” from King Arthur. But the scene was stolen by Jonathan Best as the allegorical character Cold Genius. Invoked by Cupid, he could sing only in a muted staccato, a vocal tour de force effectively echoed with detached bowing by the strings, pianissimo, and “kerchoos” from a chorus of cold people. Thanks to Cupid they are warmed and thawed, and celebrate with a cheerful hornpipe.
Purcell’s final work for the theater, The Indian Queen, calls for exotic costumes and elaborate stage machinery, the sequence of musical numbers loosely held together as a “semi-opera” by an unlikely narrative involving war between the supposedly adjacent (!) empires of the Incas and the Mexicans. In this performance, the orchestra effectively became the “corps de ballet,” evoking choreographed movement through lively rhythmic articulation and melodic gesture. Highlights included the opening scene for the Indian boy (Zachary Wilder) and girl (Jessica Cooper replacing Teresa Wakim), and the dialogue between Fame (Zachary Wilder) and Envy (Jonathan Best) culminating in a chorus of praise with trumpet obbligato. Most impressive certainly was the famous invocation scene “Ye twice ten hundred deities.” Jonathan Best delivered the arioso-like recitative and following aria with wonderful attention to expressive detail, skillfully matched in the equally impressive response by the God of Dreams (Margot Rood). Brenna Wells’s bright soprano sounded just right in the familiar “I attempt from love’s sickness to fly in vain.”
Throughout the evening, Harry Christophers led the assemblage of skilled singers and instrumentalists with a felicitous sense of movement, shaping ingratiating melodic lines while maintaining the forward momentum of the dance that underlies so much of Purcell’s music. His infectious enthusiasm could not help but inspire musicians and audience alike.