Harry Christophers led Handel + Haydn period-instrument band and chorus in a charming new adaptation of Purcell’s 1692 great masque The Faerie Queen at Jordan Hall on Friday night, reprising their excellent performance in Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall from last August. Repeats Sunday afternoon.
Rather than presenting the original five-hour mash-up of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream alternating with Purcell’s five spring-extolling acts of allegorical and political theater (it was snowing, after all), H+H enlivened the evening by employing the sparkling talents of British actress Antonia Christophers (on microphone), to present her own play-of-sorts in place of Shakespeare. Delivering a memorized script by Broadway and West End theater director Jeremy Sams that was in turns clever, waggish, and arch, Ms. Christophers dominated the stage. Her narration combined parts of Shakespeare’s soliloquies, summary and commentary on Shakepeare’s play, and details of the works original lavish staging, intended for William and Mary. Queen Tatania was with us, after all.
Since Purcell didn’t set any of Shakespeare’s text, his music would have followed and completed acts two-five in an elaborate British semi-opera version of the Baroque intermezzo. For the 1693 revival, Purcell added an additional part to follow the opening act and two songs: this complete version of the music was presented in Jordan Hall by the H+H orchestra, ten gifted soloists (eight of whom were drawn from the professional chorus), guest countertenor Charles Humphries, and the always hilarious Matthew Brook.
The chorus appeared on risers throughout the evening, with a back row of alto, tenor, and bass quartets (in concert black) supporting the front row of sopranos (in jewel-tone gowns). The Act I trio, which can come across as programmatic filler, was here a highlight: Christophers chose to employ the full double sextet of altos, tenors, and basses, rather than three soloists. The text invoked the God of Wit to join with the birds in making the stars shine, and a duet for recorders provided complex cascades of euphonious birdsong, while trumpets sounded discreet echoes.
Sams’s narration for Ms. Christophers completely replaced Purcell’s original spoken libretto (author unknown), and soloists made discreet entrances from the chorus, presenting the voices and orchestra as the center of dramatic action. The choral singing was balanced, brilliant, and full of expression. Their clear diction greatly enhanced the comedy and pathos appropriate to each scene, and the larger ensemble often surpassed the soloists in clarity and richness. This chorus, which can compete with Mr. Christophers’s lauded professional chamber choir, The Sixteen, will be featured prominently in next year’s repertoire, framing the season with two Bach cantatas (September) and Mozart’s Requiem complemented by two of Mozart’s favorite pieces: Allegri’s timeless Vatican double-chorus masterpiece Miserere mei, Deus and Bach’s virtuosic Singet dem Herrn (May).
Sopranos ruled the evening through virtuosic solos and duets woven through the masque. Acts II and III featured female narrators introducing scenes with two-part songs for soprano and chorus: Margot Rood’s lyrical “Sing while we trip it on the green” (Act I) and Sarah Brailey’s haunting “If love a sweet passion” (Act III) developed and questioned themes from the Shakespearean scenes they would have followed, drawing the audience into Queen Tatania’s magical forest. The brash, martial announcement of Phoebus, god of the sun (“Now the night is chas’d away” from Act IV) was ably sung by Sarah Brailey, setting up Jonas Budris’ tantalizing tale of “a cruel long winter” to spring, and honoring the original sponsor of the production, King William of Orange with the phrase “The world to its Chaos would return, but for me.”
Actual fairies do appear as well: Sarah Yanovitch and Sonja DuToit Tengblad recalled some of Purcell’s best music from Dido and Aeneas in their fiery duet in close counterpoint (“Trip it in a ring”) while shepherding a hilarious “drunken poet” around the stage (“Pinch him, pinch him”. This comic staging framed Matthew Brook’s most enjoyable performance of the evening, mocking the role of the playwright (“I confess, I’m very poor./ Nay prithee do not pinch me so… I’ll write a sonnet in thy praise.”).
As in all Restoration masques, allegorical characters abound: Act II featured soothing, mellifluous Night accompanied by muted violins (soprano Sarah Brailey), a dramatic song for Mystery (soprano Sonja DuToit Tengblad), Charles Humphries’ light, falsetto- infused delivery of Secrecy, and Matthew Brook’s tranquilizing “Hush, no more, be silent all,” as Sleep. Act IV presented a full year of seasons, moving from high to low through Sarah Brailey’s excellent “Ever grateful Spring” and the countertenor feature “Here’s the summer,” to tenor Stephan Reed’s beautiful “many colour’d fields” of Autumn and Winter’s lament, set over a poignant ground bass developed from Dido’s final song in Dido and Aeneas.
Orchestral soloists shone throughout, as Christophers’s baton-less and nuanced approach to ensemble balance highlighted players such as the stellar baroque oboe and (multiple) recorder pair Priscilla Herreid and Meg Owens, theorbo and baroque guitarist Paula Chateauneuf, and cellist Guy Fishman. Many of Purcell’s best songs begin with a ground bass, and these melodies were always presented with an evolving sense of meaning, developing subtle variations through cello and harpsichord (Ian Watson) into complementary characters of their own, and greatly enhancing the drama inherent in the songs. The baroque trumpets played by John Theissen and Jesse Levine added authenticity and tone, but were occasionally matched by the focus and bite of the oboes, seated in front of them. This combination, along with Jonathan Hess’s timpani punctuations was responsible for much of the festive, royal tone of the production, and at times obliterated the more understated playing of the small string ensemble. Solo string players shone in the disembodied (and continuo-less) song for Night in Act II. When Purcell allowed them to play as a chamber ensemble of soloists, remarkable voices emerged: Aislinn Nosky and Christina Day Martinson’s searingly beautiful violin work, Karina Schmitz’s rich, dark viola tone, and Guy Fishman’s wide-ranging and encyclopedic approach to the cello created more dramatic context than any flashy restoration stage set could have.
Purcell’s evening of music stands on its own as a series of baroque tableaus, and although none of Shakespeare’s characters appear, they (and the noble audience of Purcell’s day) are referenced throughout. Instead of Oberon and Bottom, we enjoy a Drunken Poet, a bawdy scene between Coridon and Mopsa, and a final marriage scene set in an “ideal, peaceful” Chinese garden and introduced by Juno, the Roman goddess of love and marriage (Sonja DuToit Tengblad’s vibrant “Thrice happy lovers”). Margot Rood literally stopped the show with her moving portrait of a spurned maiden (“O let me weep”), but Chinese men and women, extolling “nature’s chief delights,” rouse the lethargic Hymen from sleep in another humorous turn for Matthew Brook, binding up all wounds and honoring the royal couple.
A longtime advocate of new music, Prichard is a regular pre-opera speaker for the San Francisco Opera and Boston Baroque. She has taught courses on music and theater history at Northeastern University and UMass-Lowell.