Katherine Watson (soprano), Samuel Boden (tenor) & Callum Thorpe (bass)
Jonathan Cohen (harpsichord & organ)
Alessandro Talevi – Movement Director
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: 13 August, 2016
Venue: Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare's Globe, 21 New Globe Walk, Bankside, London SE1
There could be no greater contrast in Proms terms than the size of the Royal Albert Hall as compared to the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, which is a twentieth of the size and with a diminutive capacity of 340. Even with a second performance (not for a long time has there been a Prom clashing with a Prom, John Wilson’s), only about a tenth of a Royal Albert Hall audience could attend this Shakespeare-inspired Baroque feast.
The wonderful intimacy of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, with its exquisite painted-ceiling depicting Luna and with an Aztec gold mask standing in for the sun, was enhanced because the eleven players of Arcangelo (including Jonathan Cohen) took up most of the square stage, leaving the vocal soloists barely a metre-wide walkway.
In celebrating the Restoration’s adoption of various Shakespearean tales, it is interesting to note that we only got six lines of Shakespeare – Ariel’s famous lyric “Full fathom five” from The Tempest – but even then it’s not given to the character Shakespeare wrote it for. Instead, courtesy of John Dryden, it is sung by Milcha, Ariel’s specially created girlfriend. But if we didn’t get authentic Shakespeare, we got period instruments, even though the very first sound we heard seemed rather anachronistic: a goblet-shaped drum we might more readily associate with the Middle East, with a decidedly modern rhythm heralding Purcell’s ‘Curtain Tune’ for Timon of Athens, as played – tabla-like with his fingers – by Keyvan Chemirani. Cohen swivelled between harpsichord (with pizzicato cello continuo) and a deliciously soft-grained chamber organ.
The two songs from Timon were completely divorced from Shakespeare’s plot (which at least was alluded for the opening number – ‘The Man Hater’), introducing our two male vocalists – in jeans and white T-shirts as rival lovers in ‘I spy Celia’. Samuel Boden went on to sing ‘I see she flies me’ before we moved on to one of Shakespeare’s narrative poems, Venus and Adonis, as re-fashioned by John Blow, staring with Act One’s ‘Tune for Flutes’ – here correctly taken by recorder players Rebecca Miles and Ian Wilson (listed as a second oboist) – and then introducing Katherine Watson as Venus to Thorpe’s Adonis in ‘Hunter’s Music’.
The first half ended with extended excerpts from Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, where the music hardly interacts with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, concentrating rather on the masques interpolated into the re-jigged tale. The original production was lavish – including peacocks – but we concentrated on the music, the highlight being the ‘Dialogue between Coridon and Mopsa’ adhering to Purcell’s revised suggestion that Mopsa be taken by a man. Boden rose to being a countertenor (Watson having adorned him with lipstick, earrings and a shawl in their previous duet, ‘If Love’s a Sweet Passion’) in his ultimately failed attempts to reject Coridon’s insistent advances. They ended on top of each other on the edge of the stage while Arcangelo closed spiritedly with dances for those distinctly un-Shakespearean haymakers and Chinese man and woman.
The second half – after two of the candle-festooned chandeliers had been trimmed – was given over to The Tempest in a constantly revived production which started with music by Matthew Locke to which was later added music assumed to be by Purcell (though some still doubt about that).
From the swelling seas becoming choppier in Locke’s opening, leading to his ‘Dance of Fantastick Spirits’, we moved to (supposed) Purcell for three vocal items. Thorpe, swapping T-shirt for a more formal white one, appeared in the minstrels’ gallery as First Spirit to conjure the winds (‘Arise, arise, ye subterranean winds’), while Watson’s Milcha sang both ‘Full fathom five’ and ‘Dry those eyes’, before we heard the final masque, involving all three singers. ‘Neptune’s Masque’ is nothing more than Amphitrite asking her husband Neptune to tell Aeolus to stop the wind. As Watson and Thorpe occupied the forestage, Boden appeared in reflective sunglasses and leather-jacket in the gallery as Aeolus. Chemirani added a tambourine (played like a cello between his legs) to his percussive arsenal to accompany Purcell’s representation of the storm.
Well-conceived and prepared, beautifully performed and sung, this was a gem to match the exquisiteness of the venue. Arcangelo’s sound fitted the venue like a glove. My seat was directly over Piroska Baranyay’s resonant cello and Thomas Dunford’s theorbo (listed as a lute), which was a wonderful place to be. Watson, Boden and Thorpe – no strangers to Baroque opera – matched the instrumentalists with excellent diction as well as gung-ho acting. We were in good company too – Sir David Attenborough was there.
- Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards)
- BBC Proms www.bbc.co.uk/proms