BBC Proms at …: Purcell and his contemporaries

BBC Proms at …: Purcell and his contemporaries
Katherine Watson, Samual Boden, Callum Thorpe
Arcangelo, Jonathan Cohen
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe, 13 August

Purcell: Timon of Athens – Curtain Tune, I Spy Celia, I See She Flies Me, The Fairy Queen (excerpts), The Tempest (attrib. Purcell); Blow: Venus and Adonis (excerpts); Locke: The Tempest – Curtain Tune, The Tempest – Dance of the Fantastick Spirits (perhaps by Draghi).

As part of their ‘Proms at …’’ season, the BBC decanted from its usual home in the Royal Albert Hall to one of the most intimate performances spaces in London, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, part of the Shakespeare’s Globe complex on the South Bank. Since its opening in 2014, this reconstruction of a typical Jacobean (early 17th century) theatre has housed a number of excellent (and sold-out) musical events and small-scale operas, adding considerably to the range of London music venues. Sadly, under Sam Wannamaker.jpgthe new Globe management, those events seems to have ground to a halt, with only one listed in the current season – and that a hang-over booking from the previous management. So it was fortuitous that the BBC Proms chose the theatre for one of its ‘BBC at …’ events (alongside such venues as a multi-story car park in Peckham), not least because it enabled people to see the inside of this fabulous, but very uncomfortable, theatre for just £14, rather than the up to £62 the Globe are asking for their own next concert there.

Both venue and the music slotted easily into the Proms current focus on music related to Shakespeare, although the music was all composed towards the end of the century of Shakespeare’s death, 400 years ago. In a cleverly devised programme that drew together threads from different works by Purcell, Blow and Locke, we heard extracts from Timon of Athens, The Fairy Queen, The Tempest, together with John Blow’s Venus and Adonis.

The first half could have been described as a ‘day in the life of an attractive soprano’. The opening duet ‘I Spy Celia’ (sung by Samual Boden and Callum Thorpe, tenor and bass) saw the pair making advances on soprano Katherine Watson, who finally succumbed to the bass as the music segued into ‘I see she flies me’ as the tenor bemoaned his loss. Soprano and bass then took on the role of Venus and Adonis in excerpts from John Blow’s delightful setting. The tenor got a second chance in his duet with the soprano ‘If Loves’ a Sweet Passion’ but ended up being made up with lipstick and blusher as a lead into his role as Mopsa as the apparently usurped but still lustful bass reappeared for the ‘Dialogue between Coridon and Mopsa with Mopsa’s ‘No kissing at all’ refrain – a rather unsuccessful plea, as it turned out, as it ended with a none-too-subtle depiction of front stage rumpy pumpy.

After the interval, we heard Matthew Locke’s dramatic instrumental depiction of The Tempest and the ‘Dance of the Fantastick Spirits’, possibly composed by Draghi. Then followed extracts from a setting of The Tempest, attributed to Purcell. Comparison with the earlier Purcell music reinforced my own entirely un-researched feeling that the music of The Tempest is unlikely to be by him. The concluding Masque of Neptune was good fun, as Amphitrite persuaded Neptune to silence the windy Aeolus, on this occasion clad in shades and a leather jacket and popping up all round the auditorium.

The singing was outstanding, with fine contrasts between the powerful bass of Callum Thorpe, the more delicate tenor voice of Samuel Boden and Katherine Watson’s Katy-14.jpgdelightful soprano voice. All excelled in their acting roles as well. Although there could be some questions from purists about the instrumentation, the 11 players of Arcangelo produced some excellent sounds, not least in their instrumental pieces inserted between the vocal numbers. The only instrumental quibble that I will raise was the curiously out-of-period use of percussion – the percussion solo opening of the concert sounded more like the sort of thing that 1970s mediaeval groups were fond of, based on their most recent holiday to Turkey.

Jonathan Cohen kept the whole thing together, directing from the harpsichord and a rather awkwardly positioned chamber organ which he had to play at right angles with the keyboard at shoulder height.

Incidentally, this was the first time that I have been able to listen to a concert an hour before setting of from home to hear it myself – it was performed twice, with the 3pm show broadcast live on Radio 3. It is available on the usual BBC catch-up.

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