This year the Proms’ normal Saturday matinees at Cadogan Hall have been replaced by four ‘Proms at … ’ events. Each concert in the series is being held in a different venue including the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, the Roundhouse in Camden and even the Bold Tendencies Multi-Storey Car Park in Peckham. In each instance, there is a clear attempt to match the music to the architecture of the venue, but in the case of the second concert in the series at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, time proved to be just as important as place. The music performed (by Purcell, John Blow and Matthew Locke) was all composed in the seventeenth century so the setting of a ‘Jacobean’ theatre was perfect. In addition, all the pieces represented these composers’ takes on plays or poems by Shakespeare, thus providing a fitting tribute to The Bard on the four hundredth anniversary of his death.
While France and Italy in the seventeenth century had opera, England still favoured spoken drama with song and musical interludes. In the second half of the century, however, John Blow and Purcell led the way in expanding the so-called masque to create richer forms, and this concert from Arcangelo invited us to experience what Purcell’s audiences might have heard in a similar space. Much as it is right to appreciate the brilliance and value of the music, it is equally important to remember that seventeenth century audiences had no idea that it would still be performed in four hundred years’ time. People went to performances, even more so than now perhaps, simply to be entertained, and composers wrote with this in mind. In keeping with this, the performance featured a healthy dose of humour, with movement director Alessandro Talevi playing a key role in ensuring it did.
The orchestra of Arcangelo, directed by Jonathan Cohen who also played the harpsichord and organ, stood on the main stage, rather than in the musicians’ gallery. As, however, it was fairly small, consisting of first and second violin, one viola, one cello, one double bass, one recorder, two oboes, one lute and one percussionist (who handled several instruments over the evening), there was still ample room for the trio of singers to move around. They made full use of the space, also appearing in the gallery and auditorium and interacting with spectators. The two men initially wore jeans, t-shirt and no shoes, and this worked because performers in the seventeenth century did not don four hundred year old costumes, but rather clothes that made sense to them in their world.
With entertainment in mind, the first pieces were put together so as to include a little narrative. For example, the evening began with Purcell’s The History of Timon of Athens and included the duet ‘I spy Celia’. Not only did Samuel Boden’s tenor work very well with Callum Thorpe’s bass, but soprano Katherine Watson silently assumed the role of Celia and Thorpe ran off with her at the end. This allowed Boden to remain onstage to sing ‘I see she flies me’ as the ‘rejected lover’, and for Watson and Thorpe to subsequently assume the roles of Venus and Adonis as excerpts from John Blow’s eponymous work were performed.
The first half ended with ten excerpts from Purcell’s The Fairy Queen where the orchestra shone in, amongst other pieces, Act I’s ‘Prelude and Hornpipe.’ The performance was once again beautifully crafted so that Watson and Boden used the music that followed the duet ‘If Love’s a Sweet Passion’ for her to paint bright red lips and cheeks on him. This represented a cheeky lovers’ game, but also set things up so that Boden could then assume the female role in the famous Dialogue between Coridon and Mopsa (‘No kissing at all’), with Thorpe playing the man.
The second half began with the Curtain Tune from Matthew Locke’s The Tempest and the Dance of the Fantastick Spirits, attributed either to Locke or his younger contemporary Giovanni Battista Draghi. Both worked very well in the venue as they portrayed calm seascapes, magical islands and the most overwhelming storms, the thunderous effects being created by percussionist Keyvan Chemirani. Then the soloists were really given the opportunity to shine in excerpts from The Tempest attributed to Purcell.
Thorpe delivered ‘Arise, ye subterranean winds’ from the musicians’ gallery, framed by an arch and just a few candles. Here, as elsewhere, his bass was immensely rich and deep, but never so dark as to prevent it from feeling colourful and romantic when required. Boden revealed a beautifully shaped and sensitive tenor, while Watson’s soprano had the sweetness to touch us deeply, but also the strength to see her sound soar to ethereal heights. The three voices also worked well together, although the success of one jovial trio was still eclipsed by the sight and sound of the three singing while seated on the stage’s edge at the end of Neptune’s Masque. This encapsulated the evening as a whole in which the entertaining elements were certainly important, but in which the substance of the music, the singing and the playing ultimately shone through.
This Prom will be available on BBC Radio 3 iPlayer for thirty days. The ‘Proms at … ’ events continue at the Roundhouse in Camden on 20 August and the Bold Tendencies Multi-Storey Car Park in Peckham on 3 September. For further details and tickets visit the BBC Proms website.