All too often opera in concert is presented in its most basic format, without the theatricality and staging so characteristic to its execution. However, when a presentation comes along from the likes of The King’s Consort, you can be sure that justice will be served, even without the smoke and mirrors we’ve all grown to love.

Members of The King’s Consort © Taco van der Werf
Members of The King’s Consort
© Taco van der Werf

Artistic director and harpsichordist Robert King, instead of marching directly to the instrument, took the grip of the microphone to describe to his doting audience just where we were going this evening. Henry Purcell’s England was rife with dramatic upheavals and consequent regret, a place dependent on the ceremony of the King’s court, not only at home but in communiqué with other courtly nations. On this program was a crowning jewel of Baroque opera, Dido and Aeneas, well known by many audiences even those not familiar with Baroque repertory.

Not so well known was the Ode for King James II’s return to courtly life at home, “Why, why are all the muses mute?” Composed in reaction to a summer rebellion which was successfully defeated, the Ode begins in a rather unusual fashion. Instead of the standard opening with the entire chorus, a solo tenor (Charles Daniels) emerges and sets the stage for an uncertain and angst-ridden account of recent events.

The outstanding quality of musicianship on stage suffered only in some delicate choices of instrumentation during the Ode. Consisting of a string orchestra, without winds, or bassoon in the continuo, the repetitive nature of some continuo choices made some colors a bit too obvious. In rather soft, melodic solos the organ was consistently used to offer a mesh of sound, throwing a wet (albeit beautiful) blanket on the texture above. On the flip side, the double harpsichord instrumentation was associated with energetic motions. For my taste the choices became predictable; how lovely it can be to hear a harpsichord trickling away in a soft, supple texture.

The second and final work of the evening promised exciting drama through the introduction of the characters of Dido and Aeneas. Indeed, The King’s Consort, consisting primarily of native English speakers (i.e. singers), provides the perfect way to experience this work. The diction of Belinda (soprano Grace Davidson) shot through the texture high above the orchestra, thus taking us all out of our program booklets and into her soaring tonalities on stage.

The most compelling dramatization came from “Sorceress” Robin Blaze and his two cackling witches, played by sopranos Rebecca Outram and Susan Gilmour Bailey. Ablaze with suggestive facial expressions and an entrance walk that could rival the best cabaret stars from the 1920s, the vocal stylings of this countertenor were impossible to ignore. In fact, the librettist for Purcell’s opera, Nahum Tate, took dramatic license with the original version from Virgil, introducing a set of witches and altering the motives of the characters.

The exquisite final aria of Dido as she is about to commit suicide from the knowledge that her love, Aeneas, will find his death on the high seas, was introduced with the plaintive, descending line of basse de violon Viola de Hoog. Such a deliciously sorrowful moment was, for my taste, broken by the conductor’s choice to interrupt the final statement of the orchestra (just as Dido has fallen upon Aeneas’ sword) with a poem marking the historical significance of this piece. Of course, the words he spoke were true and full of import, but they would have been much more effective having been spoken before the piece, in order for these last wretched and blissfully desperate moments of the orchestra to resonate and leave an impression on the audience.

Overall it was a pleasure to hear the high quality of this English ensemble tackle repertoire from their country and in their native tongue. The diction and theatricality (sans staging/costumes, etc.) of the singers as well as the sensitive treatment from the orchestra marked this as one fine evening of music.