Classical: Magic moments with heavenly creatures
Friday 29 May 1998
On the morning of Sunday's performance, composer John Harle was the guest on Desert Island Discs, frightening listeners, peeling potatoes in kitchens across the country, with an excerpt from Harrison Birtwistle's opera Punch and Judy, before cooling them down again with Pentangle, the Beatles and Duke Ellington.
It was an excellent programme and it testified both to Harle's catholicity of taste and his serious thoughts about all sorts of things, including a darkness at the heart of English culture that he finds in Hawksmoor's Spitalfields church.
His new opera, , - with a libretto by David Pountney, commissioned by Radio 3 for performance at the Proms at the Albert Hall on 21 July, - turned out to be less an examination of the heart of darkness than a moving affirmation of the humanist spirit contained in the English renaissance. And it was - perhaps surprisingly, given the complexity of the ideas involved - transfiguringly good.
Set in the home of the Elizabethan magus of Mortlake, Dr John Dee (you might remember him from Derek Jarman's film Jubilee), the story concerns an attempt by Dee and his jobsworth, Edward Kelley, to summon up an angel by way of secret spells. The consequent naming of seven planets and their attendant angels provides the seven-part structure of the opera, although the form of the piece is so well-worked that it is perceived as a satisfying dramatic whole throughout.
Even the dreadful spell contained in the programme, which reads "The performance will last approximately 90 minutes with no interval", proved no impediment to enjoyment.
Played in the round, with the orchestra around one half of an astrologically detailed circle lit from below, and with the players emerging, at times disconcertingly, from all points of the compass, including the stalls, the opera was convincing as drama from first to last.
Christopher Good, whose Dr Dee was an acting rather than a singing role, was superb and he provided the clear, coherent centre around which the other, singing principals revolved.
Amplified by contact-mikes, the spoken and sung libretto (cut and pasted by Pountney largely from historical source-material researched by Ed Fenton), admirably communicated the essentials of what could have been, literally, mumbo-jumbo, into a text that remained compelling.
The music began with a heavy debt of authenticity to Dowland, then moved between the registers of Elizabethan music and a contemporary, eclectic style, carrying echoes of Birtwistle to create a convincing analogue to the music of the spheres that Dee and his circle (including Giordarno Bruno, sung brilliantly by Andrew Forbes-Lane) dreamed of.
All the principals were wonderful. Donald Maxwell as Kelley, William Purefoy as Sir Philip Sidney, Jacqueline Miura as Edmund Spenser, and - perhaps most of all - Sarah Leonard as Queen Elizabeth herself, who despite having to bear the burden of both wig, ruff and bustle, both sang like an angel (indeed, even became one) and somehow managed to retain a convincing dramatic persona.
Most of all, the music never upstaged the carefully wrought unity of the performance as a whole, suggesting that Harle has learned, after the rather overweening effect of his last major work, Terror and Magnificence, not to put all of his angels into one basket.
Directed by David Pountney, with set designs by Paul Bonomini and costumes by Marie-Jeanne Lecca, choreographed by Ian Spink and lit by David Cunningham, with sound design by Sound Intermedia, was, in the words of Sir Philip Sidney, a delight from start to finish.
As Sir Edmund Spenser so memorably said: "This one will run and run."
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