Juilliard 415 and students from the Marcus Institute for Vocal Arts and Juilliard Drama
(photo by Rachel Papo, courtesy of Juilliard0
What a stunning and worthwhile entertainment! In Henry Purcell's time (17th c.) King Arthur was called a semi-opera. What shall we call it today in the version we saw at Alice Tully Hall? Whatever we call it, we were enthralled for the duration. As is our wont, we declined to read about it beforehand, the better to allow the work to speak for itself. And it spoke loudly and clearly.
The evening was representative of a successful collaboration between orchestra, storytelling, dramatic enactment, and vocal music. Each element was outstanding but the melding added up to more than the sum of its parts.
Let us begin with the storytelling. A new script was commissioned by Juilliard, a script that tells the tale of King Arthur--not the legends of the Round Table, but rather the story of King Arthur's defeat of the Saxon King Oswald of Kent as told through the "eyes" of the blind Cornish Princess Emmeline who sees things that the sighted cannot. Oswald had kidnapped Emmeline and Arthur had to defeat the Saxon army to win her back. The script by Margot Connolly is clear and direct and allows the audience to focus on two characters--Emmeline and a Traveler who, like any good interviewer, listens to the story and asks relevant questions.
As Emmeline, Maggie Scrantom was expressive without indulging in histrionics and readily won our sympathy. Clad in elegant garb suggestive of the Middle Ages (no credit for costuming could be found in the program) we had no problem believing her storytelling. As The Traveler, Lark White was similarly convincing. She was dressed in black with a back pack and a sun hat, suggestive of a character that wanders and collects stories.
Ms. Connolly's script went well with Purcell's "programmatic" music. His composition clearly supported battles, festivals, masques, and heathen worship with concomitant horrifying blood sacrifice. (Hello Woden, Thor, and Freya!) Purcell's orchestration utilizes the forces of his orchestra to paint an aural picture. We figuratively see with our ears, just as Emmeline does. The Frost Scene surely inspired the "Winter" movement of Vivaldi's Four Seasons.
Juilliard415 met the challenge of the music in exemplary fashion. Lionel Meunier was listed in the program as Director, not as Conductor; we surmise that his role went far beyond his dynamic conducting of the musicians. In any case, the performance of this early music ensemble always casts a fine glow on Juilliard's reputation.
It also produced a wonderful sensation in our ears, which so loved the soft sounds of the wooden instruments--all manner of recorders which appear to have anticipated the flute, and a lovely reeded instrument (perhaps called an hautbois) that seems to have preceded the oboe. There were various string instuments listed in the program as "plucked instruments", the only one of which we recognized as the theorbo. And was that mellow brass instrument a natural trumpet? The string section looked far more familiar and was headed by the renowned Robert Mealy.
As far as the vocal music, we are sure Purcell started his musical life as a singer. Only a singer could have written so well for the voice. The work is as thick with melody as a Tchaikovsky symphony, giving the singers an opportunity to show off their impressive vocal skills. Female voices were often gathered at one side of the stage, whilst male voices appeared on the other side. All vocal parts represented supernatural characters, shepherds and shepherdesses, or Roman gods.
These parts were sung by sopranos Song Hee Lee, Erin O'Rourke, and Jazmine Saunders; mezzo-sopranos Lucy Altus, Stephanie Bello,and Lauren Torey; tenors Colin Aikins, Geun-hyeong Han, and Samuel Rosner; baritones Minki Hong and Shavon Lloyd,; and bass-baritone Donghoon Kang.
Consider yourself fortunate if you got to see and hear this rarely performed work in this elegant version. Should we need to find a minor quibble it would be the projections. Meant to suggest the Medieval settings, the goal was not quite realized; the rear wall of the stage is perforated and unfortunately one could barely make out what was being projected. Nonetheless, it was a magnificent evening.
© meche kroop