I had missed Urban Opera’s premiere production of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas last year, but I’d heard enough raves to keep an eye out for any follow-up productions. Finally a new project was announced: a Purcell pasticcio called the Witch of Endor, scheduled for two performances on Halloween weekend at the Episcopal Church of St Mary the Virgin. I did hesitate a bit since this would be a BART plus bus trip, which meant that getting to and fro would likely take several times as long as the actual performance (which was announced as slightly more than an hour, but was actually a bit less). Then I saw that Shawnette Sulker, whom I had enjoyed so much in the Carter song-cycle last August, would be singing, so I decided to be adventurous and trip out to a different venue. Not only that – I sprang for a Premium ticket. I’m sure glad I did – the performance is one of the most fantastic (in every sense of the word) things I’ve seen in quite a while, and I’ve rarely seen any group do so much with what must be limited resources.
St Mary the Virgin turned out to a small and severely elegant church of dark wood, with the occasional baroque Catholic-type touch – two large statues of swirling angels, an elaborate brocade altar cloth. Director and conductor Chip Grant used the entire space, from the altar to the aisle to the organ loft in the back. All the music (except for one scene for drum circle) was from Purcell, centering on the short scene In Guilty Night, but also incorporating instrumental and vocal music from other compositions, combined with readings (from Rudyard Kipling and the Bible), movement, and film to tell the story of Saul’s visit to the Witch of Endor, which ends with the summoned ghost of Samuel announcing that Saul and Jonathan will the very next day join him in the world of the dead. All of these elements combined smoothly to produce something that was both new and yet faithful to the allegorical masque-spirit of the seventeenth century.
After the introductory recitation of Kipling’s The Witch of En Dor (by Gary Graves, as a wandering old street preacher) and the chaconne from King Arthur, the Reverend Dr. Jason Parkin read the relevant passages from Samuel I in mellifluous tones, a prologue that provided anyone unfamiliar with the story (which is also a key incident in Handel’s oratorio Saul) with an immediate understanding of the story we were about to experience.
Though the duration of the performance was short, it was very condensed and rich, with many touches that expanded the implications of the piece and played off one another: for example, Shawnette Sulker as the Witch wore a striking orange pleated cape and costume with a feathered headress, and the drum circle of related sorcerers carried bare white branches, and their outfits evoked the natural world and African spirit mediums and their struggle against persecution by the imperialist reformers evoked by the readings from Kipling and the film clips of British imperial coronations; the dominance and eventual collapse of imperialism is a subject, needless to say, deeply relevant to contemporary America.
The film (and it was actually a filmstrip, with that evocative whir of the projector) illustrated the backstory – the coronation of Saul and his persecution of witches and mediums – using a variety of film clips both new and old, along with images from Goya, and what I think were moments from the weird Swedish silent film Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (the Criterion edition includes the 1968 version narrated by William S. Burroughs, with a Jean-Luc Ponty soundtrack; the date surprised me, since the total effect of that version is so 1950s hipster you can almost smell the marijuana as you watch it). The film work was done by Brendan Bolles. The striking, inventive costumes were by Anastazia Louise. The chorus make-up was by Rachel Rehmet, and I have to mention one of the most stunning strokes, the climax of the work: after the ghost of Samuel announces Saul’s impending doom, you realize that the orchestra and chorus have all been sitting in profile, because they simultaneously turn their heads to show their other profile, each made up to look like a skull, so that Saul is suddenly surrounded by a skeleton chorus. Pure and powerful theater magic, using the simplest of methods. That kind of ambitious invention is evident throughout.
I could just keep on raving about the experience. I should of course mention how excellent the musical portion was. I’ve already discussed Shawnette Sulker, who showed she could handle Purcell as well as Carter. There were also excellent contributions from John Minagro as Samuel, Colby Roberts as Saul, and Lindsey McLennan as the Goddess of Dreams. The orchestra was elegant and powerful. I’m sure I’m forgetting something or someone. Kudos to Chip Grant for spearheading the large and talented crew.
Afterwards there was a generous reception in the church courtyard, with wine and cheese and crackers and grapes. Before the performance those of us with premium tickets had been offered – I swear – fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies, which were delicious; I ate more than my share. I didn’t have any of the wine afterwards, since it sometimes triggers migraines for me and I’ve been headachey recently, but if I’d been feeling better I’d have risked a glass out of love for the name of the winery: Forlorn Hope Wines.
OK, I will definitely be keeping an eye out for any upcoming productions Urban Opera might put on. It’s a shame this one isn’t running another weekend, so that word can spread.