Perhaps it's part of a cunning pro-European plan, for there's nothing like the historical breadth of early music to show the relativity of our cultural divides - and Purcell, our great cosmopolitan, was suitably this year's subject. But other topics emerged, not least that of opera, semi- opera, and the merits of baroque dramatic tradition.
They nicely overlapped on Friday in The Island Princess, a "dramatic opera" of 1699 with music by Daniel Purcell (Henry's younger brother), Jeremiah Clarke and Richard Loveridge. Combattimento wisely offered it without the irrelevant spoken text; given this way, it seemed more authentic than with one of those bogus narrators whose efforts at other recent revivals would have attracted rotten eggs were we really to recreate the rowdy conditions of Stuart theatre.
Instead, heard with a dash of imagination, symphonies for strings and brass at the start of Act 5 gave a hint of the rawly pungent original experience. Swift and efficient purveyors of mood, they led to an allegory of the seasons that joyously plundered the eternal comic seam of town and country love-making. At home in their travesty roles, counter-tenor Nicholas Clapton and tenor Arwel Treharne Morgan offered amusing theatre, while the music gained dramatic conviction by clearly touching the pulse of popular feeling.
This proved equally true at Al Ayre Espanol's concert on Thursday 29 June, also at St James's, of Spanish music from the same period. Though a sacred Villancico de miserere by Jose de Torres was a vision of beauty from a native school of sacred music, the real surprise was a Xacara of the Nativity, a church drama that once packed them in the aisles of Malaga Cathedral and delighted the modern audience by the same means of robust, streetwise dance rhythms from the Spanish folk tradition.
By contrast, early 18th-century arias by Sebastin Durn and Antonio de Literes showed a copious if genteel invention that was also typical of Eccles' Semele, revived on 27 June at Stationers' Hall as part of the City of London Festival. Written in 1707 as an experiment in native opera seria to oust the popular theatre of which The Island Princess is a good example, it might have created an English national opera - had not bad luck denied it performance at the time. With Stephen Varcoe (Jupiter) and Susan Gritton (Semele) leading a strong cast, Richard Hickox and Collegium Musicum 90 worked hard to make amends for centuries of neglect, though all the fine music could not redeem an interminable plot. It's an interesting might-have-been, certainly; but hard to credit as an operatic lost leader.Reuse content