Variety show

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  March 8, 2006

Martin Pearlman’s Boston Baroque sold out Jordan Hall with two performances of Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, “incidental” music for a 1692 staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream actually five comic or symbolic masques, each added to the end of an act. The score is enchanting, with heavenly music for the fairies, galumphing music for the clowns, and brilliant fanfares to celebrate the multiple marriages at the end.

Pearlman’s Purcell has been among his stronger efforts — better than his Mozart and Handel, though not as good as his Monteverdi. As a conductor, he’s neither a sculptor nor an architect. He leads with moment-to-moment energy and good humor but with little moment-to-moment or long-range shaping or a compelling central pulse. Everything just kind of bounces along without heading for some destination or climax (a built-in problem in this unstructured music). But he elicits superb playing from an impressive band of early-instrument musicians — concertmaster Daniel Stepner; trumpeter Bruce Hall; timpanist John Grimes; and, on continuo, Peter Sykes (harpsichord), (Victor Coelho (theorbo), Sarah Freiberg (cello), and Deborah Dunham (bass) — and enthusiastic refinement from his chorus.

And he had some fine singers. Both sopranos, Amanda Forsythe and Kristen Watson, have silvery, fluty voices, though without much variety in their vocal spectrum. Watson pays more attention to the words and what feelings lie behind them. Forsythe had the greatest set piece, Laura’s “Plaint” for her lost love — a grief-stricken aria on the level of Dido’s lament in Purcell’s only opera, Dido and Aeneas. But her mild manner glided above the tragic depths and smoothed over any dangerous waves of emotion, even as Daniel Stepner’s solo violin shed real tears. Resonant, articulate baritone David Kravitz had a chance to show more variety: drunken poet, horny shepherd, dignified demi-god. His singing of the slow, quiet Air of Sleep was a moment of sublime repose, and Pearlman timed the hushed pauses — “No noise . . . No noise” — perfectly. Tenor Frank Kelley could give everyone lessons in diction. Countertenor Ryland Angel’s round voice tended to come and go. He was funny in his comic shtick as the shepherdess Kravitz was chasing, especially in his campy blond Angie Dickinson wig.

A nice bit of stage business had the four singers depicting the seasons circle around the orchestra to the left, come downstage to sing, then continue their circle around to the right and back into place. It was like watching the motions of a cosmic clock.

Poet and former poet laureate Robert Pinsky made an engaging narrator, providing a context for the masques by stringing together lines from Shakespeare, lines from Purcell’s unidentified librettist (including such elaborate stage directions as a 12-foot-high fountain and the arrival of Juno in a peacock-drawn chariot), and some new lines of his own. His personal charm helped project the jokes despite a booomy/echoey sound system. Better was deserved.
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