So there I was Thursday before last, on my way to Philharmonia Baroque’s Purcell program at Herbst Theater, crossing a one-way street with the light, feeling secure that the cars would only come on one side, when a monstro car made an insane and completely illegal turn from Van Ness head on in the wrong direction to this one-way street, nearly hitting me as well as smashing into the cars stopped at the light. This complete moron just wanted to make a U-turn, and couldn’t possibly go up a block to a street where that would have been possible. And then she flipped me off! Yes, I had flipped her off first, but that’s only the natural order of things when a ton of steel bears down on your defenseless person when you have the right of way. The very least this idiotic (insert your favorite derogatory term here) could have done is pretend to feel some shame. I only wish I could have reached out to her with some heart-piercing empathetic words, or possibly just a baseball bat. Honestly, what has become of the simple decency of pretending to care about other people? It’s a world turned upside down, indeed it is.
And I’m not fully convinced the two next to me in the theater, hacking, chatting, and program-flipping during the first half of the concert, actually were people. The woman’s scrawny form, large empty black eyes, and bulbous forehead narrowing down to her clacking mandibles made me think she was just some giant ant transmogrified through some terrible accident, possibly involving gamma rays or suchlike, the same accident which had plucked her male companion, a snuffling old badger, from his woodland dell, and mysteriously deposited them in a concert hall for an evening of Henry Purcell. No wonder they didn’t know how to behave in such a startlingly alien environment! You see, after being nearly killed by Idiot of the Evening #1 and then finding myself seated as always next to some more Idiots of the Evening, I have decided to approach the universe with compassion and understanding, because seriously what other choice do I have?
So the concert started, and given the evening so far, and the general tenor of my days, and the known difficulty of getting, say, five people to show up in the same meeting room at the same time, it struck me that here we had roughly fifty people all come together, some to sing and some to play various instruments and all in harmonious coordination, working together and attending to each other, in an effort to bring beauty and joy to a blighted world and to let a dead artist’s works not die with him, and what a strange and wonderful thing this is. And I see it all the time, and experience it on recordings, and I’ve grown blasé about it, and I shouldn’t be.
Moments of disoriented epiphany aside, the first half of the concert, though deeply enjoyable, was also very odd, sort of a Purcell grab-bag. The concert was billed as “The Passion of Dido,” in realistic acknowledgement that we were all there to hear Susan Graham as the tragic Queen of Carthage, but it was really a surprise birthday party for the composer’s 350th. So we skipped from sacred to profane and back again, as no doubt did Purcell's comissions, first hearing a chorus (O Sing Unto the Lord a New Song) followed by the Chacony in G minor followed by another chorus (Hear My Prayer, O Lord) and then the Suite of incidental music from Aphra Behn’s Abdelazer (anyone want to join me in clamoring for a revival? . . . well, fine, forget I mentioned it!), the Rondeau of which jumped out at me with not-quite-placeable familiarity until the program-book came to my aide-memoire by mentioning that Britten used it as the theme for his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, a gift from one native-born British composer to the next.
To top off the suite, Celine Ricci sang Lucinda is bewitching fair, and I must say that however bewitching Lucinda may be, Ricci did not have the same effect on me, though I can’t quite say if I simply didn’t care for her very bright voice or if her non-stop cartoony mugging just put me off too much. She’ll improve immeasurable as a performer, I think, when she learns the value of standing still. I might be surrounded by gargoyles in the street or the audience but, having higher standards for the theater, I like people on stage to resemble my fantasy of human beings.
After the intermission, having had more than enough of my neighbors, as soon as the lights dimmed and the main event was about to start I slipped a few rows forward to one of the few empty seats where I could be blissfully surrounded by people actually paying attention. And here I’ve made you wait almost as long for the appearance of Susan Graham as we waited that night! I had been a bit let down by her rendition of the Ruckert Lieder at the Symphony in September, but she was triumphant and heart-breaking as Dido, and in full blonde glamazon mode to boot, dressed in a sort of purple-and-coppery beaded sheath, towering physically over everyone on stage, even her Aeneas (William Berger, and though I thought he started out a bit weak, he soon was supple and powerful enough to make a vivid impression in his small but crucial role). Graham astutely played against her strength by emphasizing Dido’s pain in sometimes unexpected places; lines such as “For ‘tis enough, whate’er you now decree, / That you had once a thought of leaving me”, which might have blazoned forth with offended majesty, were instead a tender reminder of the little interior bit of human dignity we try to cling to in ourselves.
Brian Thorsett was Mercury and the saucy Cockney sailor; Jill Grove was elegantly malevolent as the Sorceress. Her two assistant witches were Cyndia Sieden (who also sang Belinda) and Celine Ricci (who also sang the Second Woman); I much preferred Sieden, since Ricci had not spent the intermission taking my telepathic advice and calming down her gesticulating. There seems to be a growing tradition of having the Sorceress express elaborate boredom as her accomplices roulade away on ho ho ho; I’m not sure where this comes from (maybe Mark Morris’s staging?) and I’m not sure how I feel about it. It’s mildly funny, but the joke is at the expense of the repetition and virtuosic display so characteristic of baroque music, so the effect is of a subtle insinuation that the art form we’ve gathered to hear is basically strange and laughable. Would these people have the same reaction to a modern form like so-called minimalism, a form also dependent on repetition and virtuosity? An early music ensemble should be able to shake off the underlying nineteenth-century mindset.