“The course of true love never did run smooth” protests Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. While Scottish Opera moves its production across to Edinburgh next week, just down the road in the atmospheric Greyfriar’s Kirk, The Dunedin Consort performed two tales of destructive love both of which, unlike Shakespeare’s tale, end unhappily as the women find themselves at the mercy of their suitors. Scarlatti and Handel’s music may be exquisite, but in a striking performance, the singers revealed darker undertones.

The Dunedin Consort
© Jen Owens

To introduce the Baroque tone, strings and continuo gave us Handel’s lively Concerto grosso in D major, Op.6 no.5. Written for performance between works, this one borrows music from his Ode to Saint Cecilia’s Day launching purposefully into regal dotted rhythms as John Butt directed his period instrument forces from the harpsichord. It was fun watching the players tearing into this music with abandon with animated violin solos from leader Matthew Truscott and Rebecca Livermore and robust cello from Andrew Skidmore. The animated fifth movement, with devilishly scurrying violins, was a highlight, John Butt an animated whirl, keeping the harpsichord part going as he pointed up exciting dynamics. A steadier Menuet, a stately dance with a spring in its step, rounded it all off.

Scarlatti’s Bella madre dei fiori is a short cantata telling the tale of the nymph Clori, infatuated with love for Fileno, waiting in vain for him and forced to take solace in the nature around her when she realises that he is never coming. The work is set for two violins, continuo and soprano and while Truscott and Livermore wove gorgeous rural tapestries tinged with yearning, Anna Dennis’ full rich soprano filled the church with dramatic emotion. Vivid recitatives were followed by passionate arias, Dennis’ pure voice growing the notes, her bright open Italian vowels heightening her lovesick distress. It’s a work full of colour with beautiful suspensions building and then relieving tension. The challenging long runs in “Vanne, o caro” were taken at a spectacular lick, Dennis exchanging phrases with Truscott, the intensity continuing until the work ended with Cupid gently sending Cloris to sleep as a way of ending her tears, beautifully done.

Scarlatti’s Cloris was seeking love, but Handel’s Daphne in Apollo e Dafne was desperately trying to escape it. Son of Zeus, Apollo’s main task was to drag the sun across the sky in his four horse chariot, but we meet him when he has just killed the monster Python, liberating the people of Delphi. Boasting that his arrows are superior to Cupid, the god of love gets his revenge by firing two arrows – a golden one making Apollo fall in love with the beautiful naiad Daphne, and a leaden one, making Daphne detest him. The full strings and continuo were augmented with Baroque woodwind as bass-baritone Matthew Brook confidently boasted of his exploits in a muscular and visceral voice, the oboes mischievously adding light and colour to his opening aria. In contrast to the bombastic Apollo, Daphne’s first aria “Felicissima quest’ alma” was accompanied by beautifully plucked strings and a wonderfully sinuous flute solo from Katy Bircher as Dennis sang passionately with clean leaps and ornaments about the happiness and freedom of an unattached life. Apollo makes advances, but is spurned as Daphne grows in anger, the whole Consort throwing itself into the melee as Dennis raged magnificently, especially so when Brook raised the stakes by lustfully eyeing her, a nice moment of stagecraft. The musicians deftly follow the twists and turns as Apollo becomes dangerously insistent. In the story, Daphne appeals to Peneus the river god to rescue her, which he does by turning her into a laurel tree, Apollo making the shrub evergreen, resistant to harm from the winter’s ice. Brook’s final arias were sung with a rough edge, a broken but chastened god, declaring that all heroes shall henceforth wear a laurel crown, the woodwind’s baleful chords ending the piece in humbled melancholy. 

****1