Friday, November 6, 2015

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra opens the 2015-2016 concert season with a semi-staged performance of Henry Purcell's "The Fairy Queen"

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra opened the 2015-2016 season with its own unique performance of Henry Purcell’s “The Fairy Queen”. This writer attended the concert on October 29th 2015 in the Mary Nathanial Golden Hall of Friendship of the Jerusalem International YMCA. JBO founder and musical director David Shemer conducted the performance. Based on Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, the semi-opera, with spoken passages to form the dramatic framework, was premiered at London’s Dorset Garden Theatre in 1692. The original production, with its large cast, elaborate songs, ensembles and choruses, was so extravagant that additional performances had to be arranged to cover expenses. In his informative program notes for the JBO performance, musicologist Dr. Alon Schab referred to the fact that what London audiences of Purcell’s time wanted was to be well entertained with humor, good music and stage effects. With the anonymous libretto of Purcell’s work not including one word of Shakespeare’s text, and considering the fact that the musical numbers are not integrated into the main plot of the play, there remains the need to fill in details of the plot. To conjure up the world of fairies and present the comedy of errors in a format suitable to Israeli audiences, poet and flautist Hila Lahav was enlisted to write connecting texts. Witty, rhyming, topical and constantly touched with the sparkle of magic, it was spoken by actress, singer and dancer Ifat Maor, playing the role of Titania, the Fairy Queen, as she read entries from her diary, continued the process of writing her thoughts and memories with her feather quill and spoke some home truths learned from the goings-on. A little on the lengthy side and with occasional inarticulate moments, the text was nevertheless very charming both in style, content and in Maor’s polished presentation.

Making up the fairy host were singers from the Moran Singers Ensemble (conductor: Naomi Faran; conductor in residence: Guy Pelc), whose natural, unaffected and unforced solo-, duo- and ensemble singing (and their youth) made for much delight in depicting the actions of fairies and mortals in the forest outside Athens. The work offers many solo vocal pieces and, as in former years, Maestro David Shemer gave the stage to young up-and-coming talent, offering audiences the chance to hear these promising singers and to then follow their developing careers. The soloists, both fledgling singers and those more veteran to the Baroque music stage, contributed to the theatrical and musical canvas and to the work’s message on the fragility of love.

Neither the kind of opulent spectacle of Purcell’s time nor the exotic or over-the-top performances of some of today’s “Fairy Queen” productions, David Shemer, in his minimal but effective and tasteful staging, added some appealing touches – bird headdresses, flags, garlands and, in the night scene, the host of fairies being covered with white muslin. In much delightful and satisfying playing of this splendid music, Maestro Shemer and the JBO players performed the overtures, instrumental preludes, ritornellos and dances with due elegance. Modern trumpeter Gregory Rivkin, making his first foray into playing Baroque trumpet, should have been given much more time in order to manage the tricky, uncooperative instrument.

With all song texts and titles of instrumental numbers flashed onto a screen, the audience was invited to ponder Purcell’s texts (despite the singers’ generally good diction) a worthwhile task, considering their sophistication, and to savor and appreciate Purcell’s colorful use of language and his exceptionally liberal approach to life and love – he was certainly no English prude!  It was Benjamin Britten who claimed that Purcell had a greater understanding of the English language than any other composer who had set it and that his ability to blend text, sound and structure into something remarkable was unique.

Some of the several engaging numbers of the JBO performance were Doron Florentin’s singing of the sensuous “One charming night” his well-modulated, rich tenor voice accompanied by elegant, ornamented recorder-playing (Shai Kribus, Hila Lahav), alto Zlata Hershberg and bass Yoav Weiss in a whimsical performance of the risqué “No kissing at all”, soprano Shani Oshri’s soothing, velvety singing of “See even night herself” accompanied by high strings only, Tamara Navot's informed and mellifluous singing of "I am come to lock all fast", Yoav Weiss’s hauntingly moving rendition of “Now Winter comes slowly”, tenor Hillel Sherman’s poetic and rewarding presentation of “See my many-colour’d fields” and Adaya Peled’s superb and languishing performance of the ostinato-based lament “O let me weep”, her word-painting giving expression to the plaint’s heartbreaking message on love and parting.

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