The musical depth of 17th-century English composer Henry Purcell received an overwhelmingly heartfelt and hilarious production from BarokOpera Amsterdam this week. The group has collected a milieu of music from the composer in addition to a colorful commentary on the lives of King William III and Queen Mary to paint an entirely vivid, and candid, picture of history through a modern lens. Artistic leader (and flutist) Frédérique Chauvet has assembled a small instrumental orchestra of roughly nine musicians in addition to four spicy vocal soloists who are absolutely riveting in their retelling of events.

BarokOpera Amsterdam Purcell Gala
BarokOpera Amsterdam Purcell Gala

Flexing its muscles in the conventional operatic sense, the music performed and the action onstage are not taken from strictly one piece of music. It is rather a mix of ceremonial works (works written for the royal family’s birthdays, victories in war, funerals, etc.) and theatrical settings, including material from The Fairy Queen (1692) and The Tempest (1695), which all culminates to tell the story of William and Mary and their patronage of Henry Purcell in their musical court.

Opening the evening with a proper introduction of the orchestra with one of Purcell’s overtures for the Birthday Ode for Queen Mary (1694), things seem to be running in a traditional direction. That is, until the four rambunctious vocalists take to the stage! All a flurry to assemble a large map of Europe and to explain it to us, their eager and chuckling audience, the precise situation between the British, Dutch and French empires of the time. Doubling as storytellers (ahem! Actors) in this sense, the primary language spoken was Dutch, making an even deeper connection to William III’s roots.

The entire evening swept through the events of these two royal lives, as they first were introduced to be married, hilarious speculation over William’s sexuality (no children and only one mistress argue a strong case!), war drama with France, nostalgia for the Fatherland (The Netherlands) and eventual death and loss. Throughout such drama it’s particularly interesting to keep in mind that Mr Purcell was present for each event, offering his services to the royal family’s demands and needs.

Battling a slightly dry acoustic, the singers nevertheless prevailed, particularly in full ensemble numbers. The personality and strength of character from each only increased when interacting together. It was so refreshing and obvious that these four had a mutual connection and a vast depth of experience already under their belts in order to pull off such gut-splitting execution!

Bursting onto the stage to open the second half of the program, countertenor Gunther Vandeven led the orchestra in a mock-conducting of the Symphonie pour le Régiment du Roy, written by Purcell’s French contemporary (working for Louis XIV) Jean-Baptiste Lully. Breaking the most cheery atmosphere, the four vocalists assembled together for several small works from The Tempest, illuminating themes of ambition and the evil chambers of hell from the exceedingly popular work of William Shakespeare. In a musical sense, one could pick up on just the right sprinkle of flourishes and embellishments from harpsichordist Claude Meneux-Poizat, which heightened the intensity of mood.

In its more intimate moments, the orchestra took the cake in terms of delicate sensitivity to the needs of the music. Producing just the right mix of sadness and regret for the entrance of “Death” into one of the scenes from Funeral Sentences for Queen Mary (1694), the sorrowful moans of despair were heard in the violins and in particular the lines from basse de violon Cassandra Luckhardt.

In many of the militaristic works on display, primarily from King Arthur (1691), the trumpet interjections of Will Wroth provided for humorous interaction between singers and instrumentalists. At one point the singers implore him to “Cease, trumpet, cease” but of course, being of rigid character, he persists only to ruffle the feathers of poor adamant soprano Wendy Roobol.

Another moment of pure comedic wit develops when William goes to fight a French rival. The entire evening we have witnessed each vocalist in a pristine white frock, the men, in particular, wearing suits resembling period fashion. Finally the two combatants cannot stand it any longer; they must fight! They rip open their white blouses to reveal (what else!) the present-day football colors of Holland (orange) and France (blue). This kind of acknowledgement of still-current rivalries just solidified the entire theme of the work: history has a tendency to repeat itself!

Overall, this production of the story of William and Mary was simply and happily enjoyable on all fronts. Visually pleasing by having the orchestra onstage as equals to the vocalists, the interaction of the singers to each other and also to their instrumentalist colleagues and the tongue-in-cheek approach made this performance an absolute success.

****1