Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Gabriel @ Barbican Hall, London

21 October 2019

Alison Balsom

Alison Balsom
(Photo: Hugh Carswell)

Although there is no scriptural name-check, the trope of the archangel Gabriel being God’s trumpeter is long-established: through Paradise Lost, Spirituals and even Cole Porter’s Blow, Gabriel, Blow. The trumpeter Alison Balsom, in collaboration with the writer Samuel Adamson and the director Dominic Dromgoole expanded on the notion of a ‘divine trumpeter’ by presenting a mélange of music and text around Henry Purcell (famed for his writing ‘sweeter’ parts for natural trumpet that challenged the instrument’s martial reputation) and his historical context.

Gabriel was a loose-limbed, slick production that made full use of the Barbican Hall stage. The actors and musicians were casually dressed, and inhabited several roles that took them from the court to the stage and out into late 17th-century society at large. Some of the story of the Shore family (the father and two sons all trumpeters attached to the Royal household) was told (and the contrast of military and subtle trumpeting styles whimsically pointed up through the opposing preferences of the brothers William and John), along with that of the soprano Arabella Hunt, whose marriage to another woman and preference for her own gender was frustrating to members of the Court, but sufficiently attractive to Queen Mary that she became a favourite singer. The sad story of Mary’s nephew, The Duke of Gloucester (the future Queen Anne’s longest surviving child, who died aged 11) was also explored through his love of military music, and his favouring of William Shore.

Although a theatre story was necessary to allow the performance of some of Purcell’s theatre music, the inclusion of a story about tangled love between actors (echoing Purcell’s semi-opera The Fairy Queen, which itself incorporates sections of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream) worked the least well. The Fairy Queen itself is a bit of a hodge-podge (the action ending up, for no apparent reason other than appeal to fashion, in China), as the English hadn’t quite yet acquired the Italian opera bug, and tired easily of stage productions that were entirely musical. To add another layer to the confusion seemed like stretching a point for its own sake.

The music, provided by Balsom herself, along with The English Concert (instruments) and Guildhall Consort (chorus) under Harry Bicket’s direction, was delivered with precision and excellence. The blend and co-ordination were particularly noteworthy, especially considering the exigencies of spatial separation and the requirements for musicians to move around the set (Joseph Crouch’s precise cello continuo, notwithstanding that he played it standing with the instrument strapped to him, deserves special mention). That some of the Purcell pieces were only fragments or played as background to dialogue was frustrating, but such was the nature of the multi-media production. We were treated, though, to fine and near-complete renderings of ‘Sound the Trumpet and Beat the Warlike Drum’ in a mellifluous, almost countertenor rendering by the tenor Gwilym Bowen, ‘The Plaint’ (from The Fairy Queen) richly delivered by soprano Elizabeth Watts and the choruses Shepherd, shepherd, leave decoying (King Arthur) and They Shall be as Happy as They’re Fair (The Fairy Queen). The inclusion of Handel’s ‘Eternal Source of Light Divine’ (presented with almost emotionless surety by countertenor Tim Morgan) was, by the creators’ own admission, a self-indulgent – albeit popular – gesture.

The actors, too, were of high quality (albeit that they were occasionally – and perhaps deliberately – a little ‘actorly’ in their delivery). Jamie Parker, Jack Farthing, Anjana Vasan and Amanda Wilkin slipped into and out of roles with chameleon-like adroitness. Particularly arresting were the portrayals of Arabella Hunt by Anjana Vasan and John Shore – on finding that his child has died – by Jamie Parker.

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Gabriel @ Barbican Hall, London