In the spiffed up, though decidedly unmysterious and subway-plagued Cathedral Church of St. Paul on Tremont Street, the Henry Purcell Society of Boston produced a winning and lively sonic pastiche on The Tempest. Artistic director Jessica Cooper described how Friday’s show pulled together, “decades’ worth of incidental music for John Dryden’s and William Davenant’s adaptation” of the Shakespeare comedy. She curated the show from the Locke/ Humfrey version, and the more familiar incidental music for The Tempest formerly attributed to Purcell, but likely by John Weldon.
In the course of studying what songs were popular at the time, and were written for the Tempest, and also in the spirit of creating an adaptation for our time, I also inserted several dances from Purcell’s (Indian Queen, Circe, Theodosius, Abdelazer and Double Dealer) and of course “low songs” and fragments from the Fitzwilliam Virginal book. This was all on the Plus, as a Purcell Society, I wanted to insert lots of Purcell where I could, rounding out the program.
Ian, Paula and I made some decisions to cut bowed bass for much of the Humfrey, and let Paula pluck out the low notes in the Act Five masque, and for some of the Ariel music. I added recorders as well, as there were none indicated in the score. Paula harmonized the “low songs.”
Laurence Senelick penned witty couplets (Norman Mailer/drunken sailor) as a narrative continuity to explicate the dramatic proceedings and glue together the 31 numbers in fives acts by variously well-known and anonymous composers into a simalcrum, sans costumes and elaborate sets, of the extravagant entertainments enjoyed by 17th-century Londoners.
To assure that the play would be the thing, Senelick charged two actors with the major work of advancing the plot and employed singers in the lesser roles. It’s not so easy to avoid confusing the audience when a single person needs to portray the narrator, Prospero, Alonzo, and Caliban. That Benjamin Evett mostly succeeded is attributable to his tremendous range as an actor and his powerful and sonorous projection. He characterized his Caliban with appropriately bent stupor and pirate vowels, but his other characters proved difficult to distinguish from his entirely successful upright, bright, and emphatic narrator persona. A somewhat miscast Esme Allen alternated with him as narrator, and portrayed Miranda and Ariel. Her whining singsong delivery and Piper Chapmanesque blond ditziness often degenerated into camp, perhaps effectively for the comic moments, but not striking the appropriate note when gravitas was wanted.
The First Musick showed the energetic ensemble of eight players to be well-tuned, well-inflected and able to make enough sound for the space. Conducting from the harpsichord, Ian Watson cast a genial spell over the proceedings. Susannah Foster’s violin star glowed brightly in a leading role throughout the two hours. Doubling on theorbo and early guitar, Paula Chateauneuf, made essential contributions, accompanying variously with stately elegance and folkish glee. Caroline Giassi’s oboe solos struck gold, and her recorder duets with Roy Sansom sounded glorious.
The subsequent songs, dances, rounds, choruses and instrumental interludes from Purcell, John Weldon, Matthew Locke, John Bannister, Lully, Pelham Humfrey, and anonymous kept great company and never overstayed their welcome.
Charles Blandy, Eric Christopher Perry, and Gregor Zavracky, foundering on the shoals of the mysterious island, began the dramatic proceedings with suitably active swaggering, rope-pulling and drunken simulations. Then to marvelously raucous guitar accompaniment, the three tenors shantied the authorless song “I Shall No More to Sea” in exuberant, if not entirely lined-up unison.
After more ditties, plot-advancing excerpts, and narration, a “Flourish of Music,” Purcell’s familiar “Trumpet Tune” flourished without the trumpet. The best moment of the second act closer “Masque of the Devils,” a selection of three songs and an instrumental interlude, came from baritone Sumner Thomson’s sendoff of Weldon’s “Arise, Ye Subterranean Winds.” The sonority of his middle and top range appealed tremendously.
Act Three commenced with more Weldon. “Come Unto These Yellow Sands” and “Full Fathom Five” found the chorus relishing their plosive “Hark!s.” Soprano Sarah Yanovitch discoursed with them in a lovely and well-supported, if exceedingly quiet tone that rose to agile ornamentation.
In Act Four, I was saddened to see Purcell’s “The Gordian Knot Untied” (or was it the pavane from Pavane and Chaconne for Strings) demoted to the “Dance of the Devils” by Weldon. And so connected is that piece with José Limón’s Othello ballet, The Moor’s Pavane, that I had to wonder at finding it shipwrecked in the Tempest.
We finally got some color (after having made do with black-clad personnel), as the singers processed onstage for Act Five in evening attire (at least for the women) to the sweet instrumental strains of “Purcell (Music) on the Rocks” from Theodosius. Humphry’s “The Masque of Neptune and Amphitrite” interleaved Purcell dances and vocal numbers to satisfying effect. Though we saw no dancers, the singers had some great moments: Deborah Selig brought forth bounteous and lustrous mezzoing as Amphitrite, in “My Lord, Great Neptune.” Tenor Charles Blandy took a transcendent tenor turn as Great Nephew Aeolus. In his brief appearance as Oceanus, countertenor Douglass Dodson projected a well focused and musical instrument. A unison “Where the Bee Sucks” provided for a singers’ curtain call (with an additional one each of S, A CT, and B), and the audience appropriately talked over the closer, Locke’s Canon 4 in 2.
Altogether memorable and sometimes enchanting, the production suffered from a limited staging budget and intermittently intelligible articulation of the spoken word in a rather resonant space. Provisioning costumes, lighting, and projections could have clarified, and dramatized, but probably at too high a demand on the exchequer. Miking the narrators so they could convey every one of Senelick’s juicy witticisms and giving additional actors their roles in the play could have reduced the confusion in the plotting. And if little of the music had emerged from composers’ top drawers, the organization and execution gave us much pleasure for a while.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer