Saturday, June 5, 2010

Henry Purcell's "King Arthur" in the 2010 Israel Festival

Henry Purcell’s semi-opera “King Arthur or the British Worthy” (1691), premiered by the Theatre Royal Company at Dorset Garden on the Thames (London), a venue equipped with the means to create fast and interesting effects, became very popular in London in the last decade of the seventeenth century. Celebrating 350 years since Purcell’s birth, the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra performed the “dramatick opera” as part of the 2010 Israel Festival, this writer attending the May 29th performance at the Henry Crown Symphony Hall, Jerusalem Theatre. It was directed and conducted by Maestro Andrew Parrott (UK), the honorary conductor of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra. Vocal soloists were Israeli sopranos Ye’ela Avital and Anat Edri, tenor Simon Wall (UK) and baritone Thomas Guthrie (UK). Joining the forces of- and soloing with the JBO were British artists Crispian Steele-Perkins (trumpet), Hannah McLaughlin (oboe) and violinist Kati Debretzeni (born in Transylvania, in Israel from age 15) currently residing in London. Together with the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, its founder and musical director David Shemer at the harpsichord, was the New Israeli Vocal Ensemble (Yuval Ben-Ozer, director.) The spoken rhyming narrative text, central to and running throughout “King Arthur”, inspired by the original text by John Dryden, was created with insight and humor by Thomas Guthrie. Guthrie had prepared the text especially for the "King Arthur" performances in Israel. Professor Harai Golomb’s Hebrew translation of it, faithful to Guthrie’s text and reflecting the spirit of it, was read by Alex Ansky. The synopsis of the work in the printed program was written by by Galia Regev.

‘Now welcome all, and lend your ears.
Our story let us tell:
Of ancient foes, of war now hear,
That made England a writhing hell;
Of subterfuge, of trickery,
Of ruined peace, stability,
Of magic and of sorcery,
Of courage and fragility.
For LOVE’s our theme,
We know it well,
(and ne’er a theme
has sold do well)…’(Thomas Guthrie)

Thus begins Guthrie’s verse, actually summarizing much of the plot of “King Arthur”, one in which the principal characters themselves do not actually sing: those who sing are either supernatural, pastoral or drunk! How convincing a performance can one produce from such a story of battle, magic and love, with some unlikely elements, for a 21st century audience? The answer is - a very convincing performance, with Parrott at the helm. Tenor Simon Wall, no newcomer to Israeli audiences, is an artist with a wide scope. Illuminating texts and situations, he involves his audience in each different piece and gesture. Taking into account the acoustic possibilities of the hall, Wall’s vocal ease and richness are matched by his musicianship and quiet confidence. Baritone Thomas Guthrie performs widely. A singer, stage- and opera director, he has taken part in music workshops with London’s homeless people. Reflecting high points of the plot, Guthrie’s stable range and vocal competence, combined with fine stage presence and humor, make for much mirth and enjoyment. Guthrie had contributed much to the evening’s program and to the general production of the performance. Anat Edri is still a student at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance but her taste in- and suitability for Baroque music are clear. There was a happy blend of voices and feminine charm and Edri and Ye’ela Avital’s musicality in “Two daughters of this aged stream”. As yet, Edri’s relationship to the music is closer than to the words and word play at hand. Ye’ela Avital’s appealing voice and sympathetic personality never fail to affect her audience; she takes on each role with conviction, her emotional approach to character and plot woven into delicately ornamented melodic lines.

The New Israeli Vocal Ensemble (its director Yuval Ben-Ozer joining his singers in the performance) boasts a fine selection of well trained young singers, its high quality performance focusing on a full, rounded vocal sound, accuracy, musical shaping and flexibility. Parrott had the choral singers juggling with the sounds, consonants and the double entendres found in Dryden’s text. Parrott addresses the instrumental dimension of “King Arthur” in depth, bringing out the score’s contrasts, its sweeping phrases, presenting its various pieces and dances with charm and variety, reading into its human expression with poignancy. The wind band presented some very nice moments. In the Frost Scene of Act 3, the general temperature of the Henry Crown Auditorium seemed to drop considerably, the strings quivering with cold, the “cold people’s” teeth chattering icily and the “cold genius” (Guthrie) shaking and almost paralyzed with cold. Joining Jerusalem’s fine Baroque Orchestra and soloing, Baroque trumpeter Crispian Steele-Perkins’s playing added sparkle and enjoyment to the evening, as did that of Baroque oboist Hannah McLaughlin. Kati Debretzeni, assuming the role of first violin, led the section with verve, adding to the hilarity of the performance with her drunken reeling around the stage joining Comus (Wall) and his peasant friends. An effective sense of theatre and movement was created by vocal soloists walking on and off the stage.

Harai Golomb’s richly evocative translation of Guthrie's text was read by actor and veteran radio personality Alex Ansky. Ansky’s somewhat lifeless reading of the text did not complement the variety and temperament infused into the magical performance of Purcell’s “King Arthur”, an evening of pure delight created by Maestro Andrew Parrott, his singers and instrumentalists.

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