On hearing about the concept of Mark Latimer’s The Imperfect Pearl or Perola Barroca, I wasn’t sure what to expect. This UK première told the tale and music history of Baroque composer Domenico Zipoli in a two-and-a-half-hour show. An open mind was certainly necessary for this Baroque musical fairytale. I walked into the venue to see a piano and music stands on the left of the stage, a huge grey panel that looked like a giant wall in the middle, with a large pile of wooden trunks and a homemade harpsichord with papers on as part of the set on the right of the stage.

The Imperfect Pearl had an interesting and attention-grabbing concept. It was also a true nod to opera’s experimentalism returning to the stage. The drama was devised by British pianist Mark Latimer and directed by Emma Rivlin. William Towers acted and sang the part of Domenico Zipoli as countertenor, and also wrote the libretto. Where better than to première it than at St George’s, where the size and acoustics lend themselves well to staged chamber works.

As an ode to Zipoli, I was surprised to discover that over a third of the music used was not by the composer. This only became apparent for the “happy ending” for which Amando Kuaray, by the Guarani Indians of Bolivia, was performed. Not in tone with the drama of the rest of the performance, director Emma Rivlin hopped up on stage with the producer and started handing out flowers to the violinists who were dancing around. The idea was to emulate a festival of the music around now, but the result undermined the performance of the ode to a composer. After the applause, Towers started to play guitar and then trailed off behind the set as house lights came up. No one really knew whether this was an encore or the end of the show.

Musically, this was a very strong performance – both countertenor and soprano had sublime voices. Towers projected his voice and had a chilling higher tone, which added to the drama of the story. Irving’s voice had minimal vibrato and was in keeping with the style of music. This was particularly effective in the duets between both Towers and Irving. Sometimes I wanted Irving to smile less – not to look miserable, but just to look less happy for the more serious works. This was particularly noticable through the Kyrie from Zipoli’s Missa San Ignacio, which was a very moving piece of music. The costumes for both William Towers and Eloise Irving were of the period and convincing, though it was not obvious when Irving’s character changed from Maria Therese Strozzi into the Principessa di Forano.

Mark Latimer himself, known for an impressive piano career that straddles both jazz and classical music, is a cool cat to watch. He had expressive eyes and was aware of the action and music throughout. Despite being at the back of the stage and existing as a mere head on top of the piano, Latimer was extremely engaging. In a world of Baroque music with a harpsichord suggested as part of the staging, it did seem a shame not to use an actual harpsichord in the instrumentation. The trouble was, the instrumentalists were so good that one tended to watch them more than any action on stage, which was fairly slow-paced. The musicians were also defined by the lighting, which kept moving over to them and away from the action.

Cellist Sophie Gledhill was employed into some of the onstage action, whilst Latimer’s piano playing was mimed by Towers on the harpsichord. The placing of the musicians felt a little separated from the action as the musicians were far left of the stage and most of the acting was far right. Despite this, there were some great moments where both violinists were used in a dramatic procession down the aisles of the audience.

The second half, where Towers switched between historian and Zipoli, was much more engaging. He was witty and spoke with an energy that he had lacked in the first half. Some of the jests on Zipoli’s approach to composition worked really well, where more modern composers’ works were used. Though a little repetitive, another effective idea was used near the end, when Zipoli went through a pile of his compositions and the excerpts were performed as he looked over the papers.

All in all, this was an interesting adventure and insight into the life of Domenico Zipoli. Despite its teething problems, it will no doubt blossom into the fantastic music fairytale that it is meant to be. Mark Latimer and his team can be applauded for a bold and brave look at Zipoli’s life as a composer.

**111