“The isle is full of noises, Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not. Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments. Will hum about mine ears.” So spake Caliban in describing his island home in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, but it could easily describe our own island this summer with the Proms in full, glorious flow and the counties beyond the capital brimming with country house opera companies everywhere one looks. One of the more enjoyable innovations of the Proms this year has been leaving the Royal Albert Hall for the “Proms at…” series where a programme is put together that reflects the venue in which the music is to be performed. What better a menu for the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse than music inspired by the Bard in the 400th anniversary of his death?

Katherine Watson performs with Archangelo and director Jonathan Cohen © BBC|Chris Christodoulou
Katherine Watson performs with Archangelo and director Jonathan Cohen
© BBC|Chris Christodoulou

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse has only been open for a couple of years and I hadn’t had a chance to visit it before this concert; replicating an indoor Jacobean theatre, it seats fewer than four hundred within its wooden confines. Performances are illuminated by chandeliers packed with candles and the atmosphere was already distinctly 17th-century before the music began. On the sizeable stage was Arcangelo, a chamber ensemble with strong credentials in early music, and three singers, Katherine Watson, Samuel Boden and Callum Thorpe. This was certainly not a ‘stand and sing straight’ recital; the performers were rocketing around the theatre, popping up on the balcony and the gallery, and very much treating the rostrum as a stage, rather than a platform.

The concert opened with Henry Purcell; the curtain tune from his The History of Timon of Athens immediately highlighted the breadth of percussionist Keyvan Chemirani’s capabilities, who throughout the concert deployed nimble fingers on a wide array of instruments with perfect timing and demonstrable flair. Purcell largely dominated the programme and we moved straight into “I Spy Celia”, a duet for bass and tenor. Here Callum Thorpe showed a burly, masculine bass with plenty of heft and fine, clear articulation. Samuel Boden’s tenor was shown to its best in the following aria, “I see she flies me”, where the more melancholic and austere moments let the creaminess of his voice take on a more reflective colour.

Purcell’s teacher, John Blow, was a considerable musical figure in his own right and it was good to hear excerpts from Venus and Adonis, generally considered to be the first English opera, written in around 1683, the Shakespeare connection here being his Ovid-inspired poem of the same name. Katherine Watson, previously deployed to tempt silently the singers in the “‘Celia” duet, now unleashed her pellucid tones as Venus, capturing the playfulness of the goddess and colouring her voice with a pleasing coquettishness, which blended well with Thorpe’s incisive bass. Blow’s “Hunters’ Music” from the opera was full of fizz and deftly evocative, and his melodious tune for flutes was played sweetly by Rebecca Miles and Ian Wilson.

Katharine Watson © BBC|Chris Christodoulou
Katharine Watson
© BBC|Chris Christodoulou
A return to Purcell for excerpts from The Fairy Queen gave us one of the evening’s highlights – having sung a well phrased duet in “If Love’s a Sweet Passion”, Watson held Boden down, applied lipstick and disappeared to be replaced by Thorpe, transforming the two into Mopsa and the lustful Corydon. The comedy that these two singers created, particularly Boden, spectacular in drag and crying “no Kissing at all” was terrific fun and dispatched with impressive speed and precision – Boden’s vocal inflections were highly enjoyable.

After the interval, it was time for an examination of The Tempest, starting with Matthew Locke’s masque adaptation of 1674 (which the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment presented at the same venue last year). Locke’s vivid curtain tune skillfully conjures up the storm leading to the shipwreck with moments of rapid, jagged playing on the strings bursting through serene, almost sombre music, though I was left cold by the “Dance of the Fantastick Spirits”. We then jumped forwards to excerpts from another adaptation of 1695 attributed to Purcell, which saw a deeply moving account of “Dry those eyes” from Watson, with austere, immaculate phrasing, and “Neptune’s Masque”, wherein Thorpe’s authoritative Neptune bids Boden’s brightly-sung Aeolus (ruler of the winds), lipstick now removed and clad in sunglasses and leather jacket to end the storm.

Arcangelo gave a classy performance with consistently strong playing from all quarters, ably directed by Jonathan Cohen who led from both the harpsichord and the chamber organ with panache. This year has seen several all-Shakespeare concerts, but I don’t think any will have quite matched this for sheer atmosphere and interest of programme, nor indeed for the sheer relish with which the three singers leapt into the various roles.