Purcell’s King Arthur contains some wonderful music but it also poses real staging issues. How much of the play that the music supports does one include? How to contextualise the unfamiliar version of the King Arthur story? How to deal with the rather crude nationalism? Sven-Eric Bechtolf and Julian Crouch come up with a very interesting approach for their 2017 production at the Staatsoper Berlin.
Yesterday’s RBA concert was at the unusual hour of 5.30pm and featured bass-baritone Brandon Cedel with Sandra Horst at the piano. It was a nicely balanced programme. Cedel began with Purcell’s Arise, ye subterranean winds from The Tempest. It’s one of those very Purcellian arias for low voice that feature long, not especially fast runs and put a lot of demands on the singer’s technique. Cedel’s is very solid. He can shape a line too and his English diction is excellent. There was some particular fine playing from Sandra Horst here too.
‘Tis the season for season announcements. First out of the blocks is Opera Atelier. They have two Toronto shows. The fall show is a tweaked revival of the venerable 1991 production of Mozart’s Magic Flute. It gets new costumes and a new “flying machine” for the Queen of the Night. Colin Ainsworth sings Tamino with Mireille Asselin as Pamina, Douglas Williams as Papageno, Gustav Andreassen as Sarastro, and Holly Flack as the Queen of the Night. That runs October 22nd to November 1st 2020.
Last night marked the last performance I plan on seeing before the holidays so it’s time for the annual “best of” posting. So what did your scribe enjoy or admire the most in 2019? Let’s look at it by categories.
Fully staged opera with orchestra
The COC had a decent year but two of their shows stood out for me. David McVicar’s production of Rusalka in October was perhaps all round the best thing the COC have done in years. The production was clever in that interrogated the material enough to ask lots of questions for those willing to think about them without doing anything to upset those not so interested. Musically one really can’t imagine hearing Rusalka sung or played better anywhere in the world. The other winner was Elektra in January. The orchestra and the singing was the winner here, especially Christine Goerke, but the production was better than average and we don’t see enough of the great modern classics in the Four Seasons stage.
Last night various bits of the early music side of the UoT Faculty of Music, plus guests, put on a performance of Purcell’s King Arthur at Trinity St. Paul’s. I’m pretty familiar with the piece from both audio and video recordings (though this was my first time live) but it was clear last night that most people really don’t know the work and I suspect that the way the work was presented was not especially helpful for them.
The program contains detailed notes by director Erik Thor about his thoughts on presenting a “problem piece” without really explaining why King Arthur is a problem or why he made the choices he made. We are told it’s about conquest and erasure but not how and why it differs from what most people seem to expect when they see the title King Arthur. In short, it’s a highly fictionalised version of the very old Welsh stories about the resistance of the (Christian) Britons to the (Pagan) Saxons. Forget Geoffrey of Monmouth, Tennyson, TE White and Monty Python. Oddly, Merlin, perhaps the one character anyone would recognise, is cut here. The work itself is also a bit incoherent largely because Dryden (the librettist) tried to recast what was originally a court spectacular to the glory of Charles II as something that would work in the theatre and pass the censorship under William and Mary!
On the 14th at 1.30pm in Walter Hall Jane Archibald and Liz Upchurch are giving a recital under the auspices of the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto (so this isn’t a free concert). The 15th sees the opening of a run of a “play with music” from Theatre Gargantua called The Wager which will run at Theatre Passe Muraille from the 14th (preview) to the 30th. It promises to be a “bold and irreverent investigation into the strange things that people believe”. It’s written by Michael Spence and directed by Jacquie PA Thomas and the cast includes Teiya Kasahara.
Purcell’s King Arthur is a problematic work. It was originally written as a sort of praise poem for Charles II showing the inevitable ascent to glory of the Stuarts from earliest days. Unfortunately Charles died and his brother lost his job before the piece could be given. The staunchly Protestant court of William and Mary wasn’t much in favour of a celebration of crypto-Catholic Charles by openly Catholic Dryden and it wasn’t until Dryden and Purcell needed a new commercial project that it reemerged with various cuts, insertions and reworkings to get it past the censorship. No reliable record exists of what was actually performed in that first commercial run so for their new CD release Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort have used a mixture of considerable erudition plus impressive musical nous to reconstruct something that is plausibly like what audiences in the 1690s might have heard.
Dido and Belinda is the first show from Opera Q and Cor Unum Ensemble. It’s a reimagining of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas from Belinda’s perspective and with a decidedly gender fluid twist. Nathum Tate’s libretto is extended by spoken passages which give Belinda’s take on the story and make it very much a story of the two sisters. The back story is Dido’s flight from Tyre rather than Aeneas’ flight from Troy. The future is about Belinda as Queen of Carthage not Aeneas’ “promised Empire”. It works pretty well though I have reservations about interpolating text in the final scene. I think Belinda’s accession as Dido’s successor could have been conveyed without interrupting some of the most sublime music ever composed. That’s a minor quibble though in a story concept that works.
So May Day greetings and hello again. And here are some things you might care to see this month during your eight hours for “what you will”. It’s a bit belated for reasons previously announced but it’s here and I’m back.
Tonight at Lula Lounge at 7pm Tongue in Cheek productions have Democracy in Action. Several noted singers (Krisztina Szabo, Julie Nesrallah, Natalya Gennadi, Teiya Kasahara, Asitha Tennekoon, Romulo Delgado, Alexander Hajek and Stephen Hegedus) will perform pieces based on audience voting.
What do you get when you take nine multi-talented musicians from a variety of musical backgrounds and give them a Purcell toy box to play in? You get the latest concert in the Confluence series; ‘Tis Nature’s Voice: Henry Purcell Reimagined. It’s an amazingly fun evening that completely blows the cobwebs off the often stuffy Toronto baroque music scene. I can’t do a number by number account because I completely lost track. I was having way too much fun.