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'Tempest' in the 17th Century

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Locke, Music for The Tempest,
Il Giardino Armonico

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The Tempest (music by Locke
and others), Folger Consort

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The Enchanted Island (Music for a
Restoration "Tempest"), Musicians of
the Globe, P. Pickett

[Buy new at Arkiv]
The Folger Consort appended a special program to their 2009–2010 season, heard in its second performance on Friday night in the Music Center at Strathmore. If you are a regular reader here or of my weekly concert picks column at DCist, you heard about the special discounted tickets available for this performance and hopefully took advantage of the offer. As expected, it turned out to be the best concert of the Folger's season, for the strength of the musical selections and the accomplishment of the performers, both musical and dramatic.

The performance was a two-hour distillation of Shakespeare's enigmatic and excellent play The Tempest, arranged and directed by Richard Clifford. Carefully chosen excerpts from the play gave the bare outline of the story and touched on some of its most powerful language. As read (from scripts rather than recited) by Clifford and Derek Jacobi, Shakespeare's words sounded both plain and quotidian and yet grandly poetic. It was not only a well-trained awareness of the meter, which fits with the Shakespearean accentuation of "The Duke of Milan" (with the name of the Italian city pronounced like the last two syllables of MacMillan), for example, but the sort of expertise with the words and phrasing that comes from a lifetime in the British Shakespearean tradition.

Clifford gave a rough-hewn voice and crude gestures to the bestial character of Caliban, an interpretation that somehow recalled the leading academic interpretation of the play, as a deconstruction of colonial exploitation of master-slave relationships. The most memorable readings, no surprise, were by Jacobi, especially the last roar of Prospero and the magician's tender, resigned epilogue, but also a hilariously drunken Stephano. Local actress Holly Twyford filled in for the late Lynn Redgrave, taking the parts of Ariel, Miranda, and Trinculo. The amplification problems that bedeviled the Thursday performance were thankfully resolved (for the most part, other than a few odd noises that crept into the sound).

This unusual story, often comic but not exactly a comedy and sometimes tragic but certainly not a tragedy, has inspired many musical settings, including incidental music to accompany the play by Arthur Sullivan, Sibelius, and many others, as well as several operatic adaptations, the best and most recent of which is by Thomas Adès. Matthew Locke's extensive collection of musical pieces, composed for Thomas Shadwell's quasi-operatic adaptation of the play in 1674 (using the version of the text put together by John Dryden and William Davenant), is among the best, which deserves a chance to be heard with a more complete staging of the Shakespeare original. This pleasing music, infused with Baroque dance rhythms and sounding cut from the same cloth as Locke's approximate contemporary Lully, outshone most of the vocal selections by the other composers involved in that massive 1674 production (John Banister, Pelham Humphrey, and Pietro Reggio).

Other Review:

Joan Reinthaler, The Folger Consort's 'Tempest' with Sir Derek Jacobi (Washington Post, June 11)
The small orchestra fielded by the Folger Consort suffered from a slight lack of ensemble -- especially between the violins, not always in unity of tone and intonation and separated on one side by the continuo group, and the violas and cellos on the other side -- due to the lack of a conductor. The winds, on the other hand, sounded excellent both as part of the whole texture and in their outings as a solo group. Adam Pearl should be commended for stepping in at short notice to replace Webb Wiggins at the harpsichord: the substitution caused a few minor delays as cues were sorted out with the singers, but he played well.

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D. Daniels, Sento amor, Orchestra of
the Age of Enlightenment, H. Bicket
Baritone Robert McDonald's voice was more brash than smooth and mellow, which unbalanced some of the duets with his vocal partner, the outstanding countertenor David Daniels. Most of the vocal selections were forgettable and squandered the talent of both singers: dramatic recitatives (like Prospero's spell Arise, ye subterranean winds, by Reggio) and little duo couplets (like My Lord: Great Neptune, for my sake, by Humphrey). Some were worth discovering, especially the airs for Ariel, like Banister's Come unto these yellow sands and Humphrey's Where the bee sucks, sung by Daniels with clarity and humor.

Two selections taken from Handel's operas were marginally related to the story: the graceful but anguished slow aria Qual nave smarrita (from Radamisto, in which Daniels starred at Santa Fe Opera a couple years ago) and the dizzyingly virtuosic fireworks display Furibondo spira il vento (from Partenope, which Daniels recorded on his album Sento amor). The texts, like most arias written in the 18th century, are meant to be dramatic spare parts, so that singers or composers could take them from their original context and plug them into unrelated operas where the sentiment was similar: the words compare the character's unspecified personal suffering to the tossing of a ship or the lashing of fierce winds. Truthfully, the only reason they were included was that one of the world's leading Handelians was on the stage, and that's good enough for me.

Handel, Furibondo spira il vento, from Partenope
(David Daniels, Sento amor)

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