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Skillful Mischief Sets H+H Aflame

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Susan Bickley and Sarah Yanovitch (Chris Petre-Baumer)

Banish sorrow, banish care, when Purcell prances with such flair! Conducted by artistic director Harry Christophers, Handel and Haydn Society filled Jordan Hall Sunday afternoon for the last of three performances featuring the 17th-century English composer. (You can read about H+H’s whirlwind there-and-back-again run-out to the Metropolitan Museum’s Temple of Dendur in the Boston Globe and watch a video of that performance—which includes only a portion of what Jordan Hall audiences enjoyed—on Facebook.)

The first half of the all-Purcell program opened with a Chacony in G Minor redolent of the wistful whimsy (or whimsical woe?) to come. In between two teasing little harpsichord trifles, countertenor Reginald Mobley held the hall rapt through a hauntingly spare “O solitude,” initially with only cello on the bass line, later joined by theorbo, all achingly sensitive in their stillness.

“Welcome to all the pleasures,” the original 1683 Ode to St. Cecilia that preceded the more famous “Hail! Bright Cecilia,” followed. Like an already fine Chenin Blanc that had needed to breath 20 more minutes, Mobley now opened to a full upper bouquet of apricot and orange blossoms that transitioned with staggering seamlessness to a honey-luscious lower chest voice. Tenor Stefan Reed rang a tenderly warm and spring-dawn bright lyricism that prompted our publisher, in attendance at my side, to wonder aloud about his John McCormack potential. Members of the choir rendered laudable service in shorter solo turns and customary ensemble excellence, though overall sound suffered slight bruising from placement so far back—only noticeable by light of the brilliance one expects from this chorus.

Purcell’s beloved opera Dido and Aeneas quickened the beating, bleeding heart of the concert. Aidan Lang, in transit from the General Directorship of Seattle Opera to that of Welsh National Opera, directed this semi-staged, modern-dress, colorfully lighted rendition, the efficacy of which our publisher and I debated. We agreed on the eloquence of fully off-book blocking for both soloists and chorus. Except for one pivotal moment each, I questioned the added value of the costumes and lighting; he felt that the costumes added clever commentary and character differentiation and that the migrating pools of stage light in a dark house made for theatrical engagement.

We all have Queens of Carthage whom we’ve loved haunting the recesses of our souls. Mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley’s doomed Dido is not the one I would choose to lay me in earth, but she did cut a commanding presence, wielding the metallic finely-serrated blade in her voice to wounding effect as she ordered Aeneas “away, away!” The quietly crumbling recitative before her final Lament was among the most exquisitely devastating renditions of those brief bars I can recall ever hearing.

Drawing from the chorus roster: Baritone David McFerrin’s heroic air of earnestness well served Virgil’s characterization of pius Aeneas, but he need not lean so hard into vibrato. Sarah Yanovitch’s delicate Belinda sang sweetly but a little too slightly. Margot Rood shed her usual golden grace to delight as a deliciously devious First Witch. Sonja DuToit Tengblad and Sarah Brailey each struck a solid Second Woman and Second Witch respectively.

“Harm’s our delight and mischief all our skill,” the witches cackle. Likewise, this production crackled to life as the wayward sisters took the stage. Dressed somewhat inexplicably as chronically cold street thugs* while courtiers frolic in sun dresses and Aeneas sports his Nantucket reds and boat shoes, their finely wrought destruction won the day.

Before the concert, MIT professor emerita Ellen Harris, who literally wrote the book on Henry Purcell’s ‘Dido and Aeneas, mentioned that the Folger Shakespeare Library holds a prompter’s edition of Measure for Measure that contains instructions for an interspersed performance of Dido that employed the same (male) singer for both the Sorceress and Sailor roles. Here bass-baritone Matthew Brook stole the show as a pot-bellied petty brute of a Sorceress who before us sheds the weeds of winter wardrobe to assume the guise and broad twang of a roguishly jolly Sailor, all the better to beckon Aeneas’s men aboard. This twist anchors that jaunty enjoinder to “take a bouzy short leave of your nymphs on the shore, and silence their mourning with vows of returning, but never intending to visit them more” with a revelatory new weight of import.

Another coup de théâtre occurred when a spotlight set aglow the goddess and lyre cartouche above the stage while Mobley as the Sorceress’s Spirit masquerading as Mercury commands Aeneas to abandon Dido with a disembodied declaration from the back of the balcony. Otherwise, I found the lighting, with its full washes of bright monotone red (witches! even though they were all dressed for cold weather), then green (hunting! even though everyone was dressed for the beach), then purple (royal heartbreak!), then green on purple…, distracted more than it enhanced.

Theatrics aside, what made this Dido different from all others? Paula Chateauneuf, whose theorbo graced the first half, furnished two passages on five-course Baroque guitar where Purcell’s score calls for guitar dances without providing any notes. More often than not, the myriad music groups delivering a Dido simply elide these instructions rather than insert something not in the score. Chateauneuf chose a Chaconne by Francesco Corbetta, who was active in the Restoration court of King Charles II, and a Passacaille by Robert de Visée, a French guitarist who may have studied with Corbetta, adding her own ornamentations for the repeat sections.**

Sarah Brailey, Margot Rood, Harry Christophers, Matthew Brook, and Emily Marvosh (Chris Petre-Baumer photo)

Even without any novelties, Christophers led the H + H Orchestra (pared down to 12 strings plus theorbo/guitar and keyboard) and Chorus of 18 singers to a memorable litheness, the brisk pace accentuating almost implausibly lyrical lines, and often sparkling with a fond amusement. A winning witchcraft, indeed.

CJ Ru, Yale Ph.D. candidate in history, previously served tours of duty in the administrative offices of San Francisco Opera and Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale. 

* Why are the witches so cold? Do these forces of evil originate from Dante’s deepest icy inferno? Do they reference the concurrence of historic witch trials and Little Ice Age anxieties? Is it because their own fire and brimstone ran out that they crave to set Carthage aflame? One gets the impression that if they ever received a collegial invitation to a nice old-fashioned naked joy ride across some northern sky for Walpurgisnacht, they would feign a cough and call in sick.

** Chateauneuf helpfully elucidates that Purcell’s contemporaries “often associated with dancing and, therefore, by implication, with things a bit saucy and sexy: dancing was one of the only times when young men and women were allowed to be together without constant chaperoning, and there are some hilarious quotes (particularly from the clergy) about how guitars and dancing stirred lascivious behaviour. In Dido and Aeneas, the guitar dances happen in two such places: the first is just after Belinda encourages Dido and Aeneas to pursue the love that’s stirring between them; the second is during the scene in the grove where the implication is that Dido and Aeneas have consummated their love.”

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  1. Thanks for the review. I’d have given a lot to have been able to travel from the midwest for this weekend’s music. I absolutely adore Susan Bickley’s singing (especially Handel); she is recorded much too infrequently. If a recording was made of either of these performances, I hope someone will post news of it here.

    Comment by lynmn — April 7, 2019 at 12:02 pm

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