Henry Purcell may have been Composer in Ordinary to Queen Mary, but as this concert aptly demonstrated, his compositions were anything but. Quite apart from the programme’s varied appeal, and the high quality of soloists, the Gabrieli Consort & Players, under Paul McCreesh’s direction, brought a thrillingly raw and vibrant quality to the acoustics with their adroit command of period instruments.
We began with the most famous of Purcell’s odes to Queen Mary, Come, ye sons of arts, composed for her thirty-second birthday in 1692. Though ostensibly a celebration, the piece has a certain ambivalence almost froideur about it that hints at the occasional strain of their relationship; it’s certainly not nearly as obsequious as Handel’s Queen Anne Ode. Furthermore, it is now tempting to hear melancholic elements, such as the mournful spirals in ‘Bid the virtues, bid the graces’, beautifully negotiated here by Julia Doyle in the solo soprano role, as foreshadowing Mary’s sudden and premature death just nine months after the piece was premiered.
As the duelling counter-tenors in ‘Sound the Trumpets’, Daniel Taylor and David Clegg offered a nice vocal contrast and Ronan Collett performed well in the bass part. There were charming ornamental touches from Luke Green on the harpsichord, which was joined in the continuo role by two theorbos and a violincello.
Focus turned to another ill-fated queen after the interval with Dido and Aeneas. Over the last three centuries Purcell’s anomalous opera has acquired an almost mythological status, and musicological theories still abound over the date of its conception 1683/4 or 1689, depending on who you believe and the finer details of performance. The narrative, taken from a snippet of Virgil’s Aeneid and told through Nahum Tate’s libretto, is terse and disjointed, but musically it is a dark and complex piece that moves from bittersweet overture to a strange combination of romance, tragedy and the grotesque.
The Gabrieli ensemble delivered a rich and sensitive interpretation, and a particular highlight came with the sections of chaconne, where Fred Jacobs and Paula Chateauneuf, having swapped her theorbo for baroque guitar, decorated a playful variation of patterns with intricate finger-work, strumming all the while with the gusto of indie guitarists.
Elin Manahan Thomas sang prettily as Belinda, and made a great partner in crime to Julia Doyle in the witches’ sections. Daniel Taylor untied his substantial mop of blond ringlets to assume the role of Sorceress, and whilst his is not the most beautiful of voices (admittedly the role is unflattering) he was effective nonetheless. The role of Aeneas always presents a challenge, being musically sporadic and dramatically spineless, but Ronan Collett did a fine job, nimble-footed and wonderfully resonant. It helps that he cuts such a dashing figure, Byronic almost, and is able to command attention with his powerful stage presence.
Sarah Connolly looked every inch the Carthagian queen in a pale Grecian gown, and she traversed the stage slowly spectre-like to deliver her airs with immaculate poise and precision. Richly toned and emotionally taut, Connolly is in many ways the definitive Dido, and as far as the audience was concerned, she was unquestionably the star of the evening.