Cath Barton was at the Dora Stoutzker Hall to review a performance of The Tempest by production company Sound Affairs, known for their strikingly innovative concerts and events.
It was a whimsically attractive notion: scenes from The Tempest through a magic lantern. Sound Affairs, known for cross-artform work, have crafted their contribution to the Shakespeare400 celebrations as a concert for countertenor, period instruments and video as magic lantern. Sound Affairs Artistic Director Charlie Barber has arranged 17th- and 18th-century music written for Shakespeare’s The Tempest for a group of six baroque instruments and interspersed them with compositions of his own, together with one other contemporary piece from Michael Nyman. The music (helpfully itemised in the programme) is accompanied by video projection onto a toy theatre stage alongside the players.
The magic lantern was developed in the 17th century as a way of projecting visual images, originally painted on glass slides. The semi-transparency of the medium meant that it could be used to portray things mysterious and ghostly, and so was potentially a good choice to convey the alchemical themes of The Tempest, as in Ariel’s song, ‘Full Fathom Five’:
“Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.”
Charlie Barber has included a version of the song written by John Banister for a 1667 adaptation of The Tempest, followed by another by himself. On the stage of the toy theatre on which the projected action takes place we see a skeleton sinking to the deep, and disturbingly strange sea creatures. Visual artist Andrew Bolton, using video to recreate the magic lantern effects, here adds flickering light to good effect.
The toy theatre is on the stage alongside the musicians. As a listener/viewer, you have to make choices about where to look at any given moment. A problem arises in scenes where is there is a lot of small detail on the stage. If you concentrate on that you cannot pay full attention to the music. So if, as in his 2014 production The Fall of the House of Usher, Charlie Barber is seeking a juxtaposition of music and images rather than the music as accompaniment, it seems to me that this can only be partially successful with a work staged in this way.
Where there is a strong clear image, music and visuals can work together side by side. I liked the recurring view of a surrealist checkerboard beach and rippling sea beyond, and also the skeletal trees chosen for Charlie Barber’s Handel-inspired piece Ferdinand, Prince of Naples. I found the complex images alongside his central musical composition, Prospero: Magia Naturalis, less easy to grasp, but did very much enjoy the characterful music; a figuration on the harpsichord underlying chords on the strings, with an added fanfare on the sackbut.
The scale of this performance felt awkward; a more intimate setting would have been more involving, certainly in terms of the visuals. Also, although countertenor Matthew Venner was sweet of tone, his light voice was overwhelmed and words lost when all six instruments were playing, especially in his first song, Arise ye spirits of the storm, written by the so-called “English Mozart” Thomas Linley for a revival of The Tempest in 1777. I did, however, love his singing of Purcell’s Here the Deities Approve, especially in the first section where just two viols joined the singer.
Several of the pieces composed by Matthew Locke for a 1674 operatic adaptation of the play are included in this concert. The rise and rise of the curtains in his Curtain Tune was fun and I would have appreciated more touches of humour, but the lighter characters from The Tempest do not feature. The focus is in any case more upon mood than character, from the shipwreck at the beginning to Prospero’s renunciation of his “rough magic” as he drowns his book, the pages of which here flutter down to the checkerboard beach as the band plays Locke’s A Canon 4 in 2.
I was glad of the inclusion of Michael Nyman’s Miranda from his music for the 1991 Peter Greenaway film Prospero’s Books, and would have liked to have heard more from Nyman, whose music stands in counterpoint to the baroque style of the bulk of the programme.
The conception of this concert was interesting, the musicians first-rate – I must give particular praise to the pristine harpsichord playing of Jane Chapman – and the execution of the whole technically most impressive, but the magic lantern illusions were more curious than comprehensible. Purcell’s exquisite Evening Hymn which concluded the concert started well enough, Matthew Venner singing with just harpsichord and two viols, but when the other instruments joined I felt they weighed down the song. The possibility of a magical end was lost, and that was a shame.
Sound Affairs : The Tempest
Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, 10 November 2016
Matthew Venner, countertenor
Nicola Barbagli, baroque oboe
Daniel Serafini, sackbut
Jane Chapman, harpsichord
Ibrahim Aziz, viola da gamba
Samuel Stadien, viola da gamba
Jan Zahourek, violone
Charlie Barber: composer, stage and lighting design
Andrew Bolton: visual art and video