St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 20 October 2015
Pergolesi: Stabat Mater
Purcell: Dido & Aeneas
Armonico Consort and Baroque Players
Director – Christopher Monks
Pergolesi: Soprano – Elin Manahan Thomas / Countertenor – William Towers
Purcell: Dido – Yvette Bonner / Aeneas – Alex Aldren / Belinda – Elin Manahan Thomas / 1st Witch, 2nd Woman, Spirit – Eloise Irving / 2nd Witch – Penelope Appleyard / Sorceress – William Towers / Drunken Sailor – Miles Golding
Christopher Monks began this concert by addressing the audience. It is a stated aim of Armonico Consort “to promote access to exceptional and exciting music for as broad an audience as possible” and, certainly, making a connection with listeners like this is to be applauded. The particular point which their director made about Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater was that some of the music is apparently at odds with the words by its dance-like quality. He posited that it might have originally been composed by Pergolesi for another purpose or that it was related to the dancing mania associated with medieval religious cults. The latter rather curious notion seems to have appealed to Monks, who took certain movements of the piece at controversially fast tempi. Unfortunately, for me, this was an approach which succeeded only in making these movements emotionally sterile.
The writer and broadcaster Simon Heighes wrote recently of the Stabat Mater:
“Although the syncopated phrases of ‘Quae maerebat’ strike us today as inappropriately jaunty for the gravity of the text, their original rhetorical purpose was to suggest anxiety and alarm (in the strings) and stifled sobs (in the vocal part); the repeated trills to the words ‘et tremebat’ are not ornamental at all, but vividly illustrative of the Virgin’s ‘trembling’.”*
This makes sense in relation to a text which is about a mother watching her son dying on the cross. Whether or not, as a performer or listener, you have a religious faith, this is describing a searing experience. At the vivace tempo chosen by the director for ‘Quae maerebat’ in this performance, there was no sense of anxiety from the strings or sobbing from the countertenor, William Towers, and the meaning of the text was sadly lost.
The performance was more effective in Elin Manahan Thomas’s solos, and the pivotal moment of the whole work, the moment of Christ’s death in the sparse setting of the words ‘dum emisit spiritum’ – ‘as he gave up the spirit’ – was particularly intense and moving. Here beauty and tragedy came together in the way it seems to me that the composer intended in this work.
Pergolesi scored the Stabat Mater for two solo voices and strings. To hear it sung by a soprano and countertenor is by no means unusual, although the balance of the voices in the rising suspensions of the opening movement, in particular, is perhaps trickier to achieve than with two female voices. The partnership in their duets here worked best when Towers allowed the timbre of Thomas’s voice to float over and mingle with his darker sound. There were moments of affecting tenderness – an easing into the setting of the word ‘doloris’ – ‘grief’ – and the end of a movement where, on a descending phrase, the soprano enhances the meaning of the words repeated by both singers: ‘Fac me tecum plangere’ – ‘Let me weep with you.’
However, overall, I felt the music lacked sufficient space to breathe, and the words were not given time to register with the audience. Monks appeared to treat it more as an instrumental suite in which variety of tempo counted for more than the sense of the words. There were, though, not a few in the good-sized St David’s Hall audience who, judging by their response, relished hearing Thomas and Towers. Certainly they are both fine singers, and the baroque players fine instrumentalists. My quibbles are predominantly about the artistic decisions taken by the director.
Monks gave a lively introduction to the performance of Dido and Aeneas which followed after the interval, describing the courting of Dido by Aeneas as “the fastest romance story in history – blink and you miss it.” Aeneas is a thankless role, with no arias and precious little for the singer to do, so Alex Aldren had little chance to shine. Yvette Bonner as Dido was suitably magisterial, and Elin Manahan Thomas acted convincingly in the role of her foil, Belinda. Without the assistance of costume or sets, the ability of singers to act is possibly all the more crucial to a convincing performance than when a piece is fully staged. The singer who really stood out in this regard was the soprano, Eloise Irving, whose stage presence sparkled as brightly as her dress.
Towers had an opportunity to really open out in his top register as the scheming Sorceress, though his moments in the limelight were short. Indeed nearly all the scenes in this short opera are miniatures. Nothing outstays its welcome, except possibly Dido’s famous lament! There were some charming little gems, notably a dance for strings played by a trio of double bass (Andrew Durban), cello (Natasha Kraemer) and guitar (Robin Jeffrey), and violinist, Miles Golding’s upstaging of tenor, Matthew Sandy, as the incongruous Drunken Sailor!
Excellent as the playing of all the instrumentalists and the singing of the principals was, the best moments of the whole evening were the last. The unaccompanied singing of the final chorus, ‘With Drooping Wings’, was exquisite, the mood a suitably spellbinding one to round off the pair of performances. The moments between the final notes drifting into silence and the audience lifting their hands to clap were precious and memorable.
Monks exhorted the audience to buy Armonico Consort’s new recording of Dido and Aeneas, all profits from which go towards the Consort’s admirable work in providing free musical education opportunities for children across the UK, and if this performance helped to fund that work it was certainly worthwhile. By having Elin Manahan Thomas, a popular Welsh singer, headlining the concert, Armonico Consort may also have brought more people to hear these two works, people who would not have thought to attend a performance of one or other in another setting. So that has to be weighed in the balance against artistic preferences. Popularisation of classical repertoire is bound to involve compromise of one kind or another. Let us be glad at least that these were complete performances of the works, and not mere extracts.
* Programme note, Academy of Ancient Music, 2014.
Header photo / information about further performances of this programme: Armonico Consort.