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Reviews

07 Jan 2019

Burying the Dead: Ceruleo offer 'Baroque at the Edge'

“Who are you? And what are you doing in my bedroom?”

Burying the Dead: Ceruleo (Baroque at the Edge)

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Emily Owen, Niall Ashdown and Jenni Harper

All photographs by Robert Piwko

 

Well, we were the audience at LSO St Luke’s and we were being taken back to 1695 and permitted into a ‘theatre of the mind’. That is, into the feverish dreams and dramas, hallucinations and hauntings of one Henry Purcell who, with the shadow of death falling over his tousled bed, revisited the past and conjured his former self from the archives of memory and nostalgia: son and father, singer and composer, bon vivant and bereaved child and parent.

Clare Norburn’s latest concert-drama, Burying the Dead, was first seen at last year’s Buxton International Festival and has since toured the UK, arriving finally in London for the three-day festival, Baroque at the Edge. What is most impressive about Norburn’s conception is the way that the various strata and elements combine and cohere so effortlessly. Past and present, truth and fantasy, real and imagined come together in a tightly knit and intimate drama. The personal narrative is embedded neatly within historical, cultural and political contexts. At LSO St Luke’s, Niall Ashdown’s Henry Purcell, somewhat dishevelled in night-gown and breeches, took us through an account of his life - his losses and loves, career and carousing - and so created not just a portrait of the ‘matchless man’ (to recall the words of John Blow in his elegiac ode), but also a landscape of seventeenth-century London and a vision of the age.

Ashdown.jpgNiall Ashdown.

Ashdown captured the restless energy, wit and self-awareness of the creative genius, snatching up the manuscript paper strewn upon the bedroom floor when his Muse stirred, frustratedly shaking his quill when the ink stalled, the mechanics of transcription failing to keep up with the flow of invention as the music - beautifully played by the three musicians (harpsichordist Satoko Doi-Luck, viola da gamba player Kate Conway and theorbist Toby Carr) seated either side of the composer’s bed - raced ahead of the hand. Expressive of gesture, Ashdown used irony and self-irony with judiciousness, as when recalling the young composer’s growing success and pride in having his music performed at the soirees held by violinist-composer John Banister in his home. These were the first “concerts” given in London: “I’m sure you’re familiar with the term. Concerts. They are rather like this, but with less speaking,” Ashdown wryly observed.

We had tales of derring do, as when Purcell and the other choristers ran from Westminster to the church of St Dunstan to save it from being consumed by the flames of the Great Fire; and, of disaster, in the form of a pacy account of the origins of the conflagration and its passage through the city, supplemented by asides from the onlookers - “It was started by the French!”, “No, by the Dutch” - and by the crackles and pops of rustled paper bags and hand-claps from the musicians. Desire was not absent, Ashdown joining in tuneful duet with Emily Owen as Purcell courted his wife Frances. And, various of the singers and actresses, such as Letitia Cross, with whom Purcell had amorous liaisons passed through his bedchamber, engaging in ribald banter.

Harper and Owen.jpgJenni Harper and Emily Owen.

Ashdown shifted swiftly and persuasively between moods, and alongside droll humour there was also deep sadness: the bewilderment of the five-year-old boy at the death of his father; the loneliness of the young man whose beloved Jane disappeared one day from the family home after a change of personal circumstances; the bereaved father, mourning the deaths of four of his six children. The ode that he composed upon the death of Queen Mary was in fact, so Purcell confessed, an elegy not for the monarch but for his own small babes. Such personal triumphs and tragedies were framed by the broader context of the political age, as Purcell reflected upon upheavals and uncertainties of his day, as the culturally rich age of Charles II was succeeded by the religious unrest of James II’s reign which in turn led to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 around the crowning of the Dutch William and English Queen Mary.

Final Scene Ceruleo.jpg

Interwoven into Clare Norburn’s text are assorted instrumental and vocal compositions by Purcell: bawdy theatre ballads; slow airs such as ‘The Virtuous wife, or Good luck at last’; joyful celebrations of love such as ‘She loves and she confesses too’; the mad song, ‘From silent shades’, in which ‘Bess of Bedlam’ mourns in love-sick melancholy; and numbers from the semi-operas, such as ‘Two daughters of this aged stream’ in which two sirens, naked to the waist, emerge from a silver stream and beg King Arthur to lay aside his sword and join them. Emily Owen and Jenni Harper sang with fine focus and strong dramatic presence, characterising their various impersonation vividly. And, the three musicians were not left out of the dramatic action, occasionally putting aside their instruments to participate in the unfolding narrative.

Director Tom Guthrie has imaginatively and skilfully integrated these various elements with the simplest of dramatic means and the whole achieved a directness worthy of Purcell himself. With the audience so close to the stage, and at times drawn into the action - handed a tankard, strewn with red petals - the immediacy of the drama was captivating. Indeed, the integration of drama and song seemed almost to re-create the theatre of Purcell’s day, to place his songs back within their original context. As the lights slowly diminished upon the dying phrases of Dido’s lament, we had been gifted a magical vision of the man behind the music, the very human soul behind the creative genius.

Claire Seymour

Ceruleo: Burying the Dead, by Clare Norburn

Thomas Guthrie - director, Niall Ashdown - actor, Emily Owen and Jenni Harper - sopranos, Satoko Doi-Luck - harpsichord, Kate Conway - viola da gamba, Toby Carr - theorbo; Lighting - Pitch black lighting, Costume - Hannah Pearson.

LSO St Luke’s, London; Saturday 5th January 2019.

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