Purcell, various authors, adapted by Sir David Pountney
Grand Theatre, Leeds
October 6-27, 2023: 2 hrs 30 mins
(Also Theatre Royal, Newcastle, November 4; Theatre Royal, Nottingham, November 9; The Lowry, Salford, November 16)
Sir David Pountney and Opera North have set themselves a challenge with this new-created piece of theatrical showmanship – to make a statement about the climate crisis as well as perform a lot of Purcell’s best music.
It’s the most explicitly “green” show in the company’s Green Season, and described by Pountney as an “eco-entertainment”, which means that as well as being as sustainable as possible in its staging (reusing material from the scene store and making the costumes and props as economically as possible) it also carries a message about the environment.
The music is itself recycled, by grabbing numbers from Purcell’s original theatre scores and also from his sacred music, songs and grand items for royal occasions in late 17th Century England. Some of the initial lines have been slightly doctored, but the selection is nothing if not ingenious, in finding texts set to music that can be heard as reflections on its somewhat far-fetched scenario. There’s no spoken dialogue, and the story is only explicit in the programme booklet and some brief statements on the side-screen in the theatre.
But it’s also designed to be fun, and what you get is a series of vigorously-mounted scenes and tableaux about an absolutist ruler, Diktat, who initially wants to stop climate protesters and cares nothing about the destruction of the environment. But, near the end, with an introductory line that might sound familiar, he’s told “The play’s the thing, with which to catch the conscience of the king” and witnesses an enactment of a Bible story, as told in Purcell’s Saul and the Witch of Endor.
That bit gives the production the chance to re-use Falstaff’s caravan from their previous “green” show, this time as the witch’s lair. The brought-up-from-the-dead prophet Samuel doesn’t get the future quite right, though, in this case, as Diktat sees the error of his ways but still gets removed from the scene. But it all ends with optimistic song and dancing.
The music ranges from plentiful gleanings from the Ode for the Birthday of Queen Mary – used to express both the sycophancy of those who mindlessly support despotic power and to express the idea of rebirth and recovery of the natural world at the end – through bits of The Indian Queen, The Tempest and (briefly) The Fairy Queen, to extracts from church anthems and songs.
With some top-quality video by David Haneke as backdrops, highly-imaginative, mixed-period costume design by Marie-Jeanne Lecca, and choreography by Denni Sayers, Pountney is able to keep the entertainment value high throughout. The seven solo singers, who between them share over twice as many roles, are top-quality opera and baroque music specialists, aided by the Chorus of Opera North and accompanied by stylish playing from the orchestra, under Harry Bicket.
What’s not to like, you might think? Well, it’s an illuminating exercise in those elements that made up Restoration theatre’s musical extravaganzas – as “masques” were – but, perhaps because of its own ingenuity and determination to impress, finally rather artificial.
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