The stage in the versatile Muziekgebouw aan’t IJ was configured as an open stage, audience on three sides, and was minimally set with a small platform and a table with a red cloth and a candlestick. Myriad small electric candles were scattered about the floor, glowing a warm, flickering gold. Il Racconto di Mezzanotte, the tale of midnight, was told by tenor Marco Beasley with no accompaniment but the flickering light, a book of tales in his hand and the imagination of the audience. His sweet and resonant voice alone held the audience enchanted for the magical hour.

Marco Beasley © Marco Borggreve
Marco Beasley
© Marco Borggreve

The concert was preceded by an talk by music journalist Hein van Eekert tracing the progress through time of some of the most beloved tales of European medieval and renaissance culture. He began by following the history of Robin Hood through images and film in this and the last century, including the fabulous Technicolour classic of 1938, and Walt Disney’s animal version. Other stories explored were King Arthur, Rinaldo and Armida, and the legend of Roland, in its many manifestations in literature and opera. The concert and accompanying lecture was part of the Muziekgebouw’s series “Barok”, a collaboration with magazine De Groene Amsterdammer, in which pre-concert talks give the audience further insight into the period in which the music was written. Since Marco Beasley's evocative programme brought together music from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, as well as undated traditional Neapolitan, Sardinian and Corsican songs, it was well judged to focus on the evolution of stories themselves through time and changing consciousness, rather than on one particular era.

While Hein van Eekert gave his lecture in Dutch, Marco Beasley spoke to the audience in English, liberally mixed with Italian when he became involved in his own stories. His manner was both gentle and intense, a soft speaking voice combined with a lyrical turn of phrase. “What is la mezzanotte?” he asked the audience, and answered his own question: “the moment when everything is suspended”. Obedient to the master storyteller, we the audience, children once more, held our breath and suspended all disbelief as the bard carried us with him past a changing panorama of many human lives.

He invited us to watch the shadows on the wall, to see what scenes and stories they could show us, what “masks of a strange past” we might see, and as his own shadow swayed hypnotically on the back wall of the stage he sang E sette galere (The seven galleys), a harrowing Corsican tale of storm and shipwreck. This was followed by a vivacious tarantella from Apulia, about the venomous tarantula, whose bite makes people dance. In introducing this song, he gestured with his left hand, moving the fingers in imitation of spider - a vivid and effective gesture. A lively fourteenth-century song from the Cividale manuscript about the journeying of St Nicholas found favour with an audience anticipating the annual celebration of Sinterklaas in November.

Il centurione, forse was one of the songs written by Beasley himself. Described as a scheldtirade ( a rant!) to a traditional Apuleian tune, this song told the tale of a Roman centurian at Golgotha lamenting the death of Christ. Beasley stood on the small platform, the red cloth from the table now become a toga, and declaimed the soldier’s impassioned devotion with thrilling fervour. That same cloth later became a baby sleeping in a mother’s arms. With simple use of a few props, gesture and shadows, these and many other scenes were brought to life before us. The sensitive use of lighting throughout by lighting designer James Murray supported the narrative experience. The whole performance served as a reminder of how much can be done with a few carefully chosen resources. The most moving part of the recital were the songs of earthly and spiritual love, such as the passionate Pigliate l'alma mia (Severino Cortini, 1563) with which Beasley opened the programme, and a beautiful anonymous medieval Magnificat.

The natural beauty of Beasley’s voice is wonderfully well suited to this repertoire, having a sweet, flexible tone with an expressive quiver at the end of phrases. Occasional imbalances of tone production, which one might criticise in more classical repertoire, are not out of place for the storyteller. Il Racconto di Mezzanotte was a haunting programme of songs carefully chosen for their narrative and atmospheric power. The engaging introductions to each song combined with Beasley's charismatic performance made any attempt to read the texts and translations in the dark unnecessary. A magical evening.