Purcell's The Faerie Queene

Thursday, 6 August 2009 at 8:00pm Chan Centre for the performing Arts at UBC

Performers Suzie LeBlanc, Shannon Mercer, sopranos; Matthew White, Melanie Adams, altos; Colin Balzer, Charles Daniels, tenors; Tyler Duncan, baritone;  Robert Macdonald, Bass; Early Music  Vancouver's Baroque Festival Orchestra, directed by Alexander Weimann.

Reviewer Elizabeth Paterson

'Delicacy', 'Gaiety', 'Grace' and 'Beauty' were promised to the public by the very first advertisement to the public for The Faerie Queene and delivered in full more than 300 years later by a stellar company of singers and instrumentalists in a presentation by Early Music Vancouver and MusicFest Vancouver. Voices new to Vancouver joined familiar ones for a midsummer night of magic music.

All the soloists were in good form. Shannon Mercer and Suzie LeBlanc (sopranos) turned in contrasting styles of performance, Mercer quiet and gracious, LeBlanc much more showy, sometimes as if competing for an Olympic gold in ornamentation. At other times LeBlanc was very moving, especially in the beautiful Plaint: O let me weep, for ever weep.

The men were even better. Charles Daniels (alto) ravished us with a charm to bring the birds home to roost, Come all ye songsters of the sky. Tyler Duncan (baritone) and Colin Balzer (tenor) showed what talented actors they were as well as superlative singers. Duncan's Drunken Poet was finely judged. Touchingly, as he boozily collapsed onto his chair, orchestra and chorus sang him to sleep in a graceful change of mood and a clever interpretation of the text.

Together, Duncan and Balzer as Coridon and Mopsa, shepherd and shepherdess respectively, drew gales of laughter from the audience. Duncan's melting voice as he tried for a kiss and Balzer's deliciously coy refusals, were just over the top.

Both moved easily between comedy and the more serious, investing the graver songs with the same skill of inhabiting character. With excellent diction and articulation, subtle dynamics and graceful ornamentation both created unaffected but highly affecting performances. As Secresie, Balzer luxuriated in Purcell's already long syllables describing the pleasures of the night. Duncan turned his usually seductively warm voice to shivering icicles in the song for Winter.

Matthew White, Melanie Adams (altos) and Robert Macdonald (bass) were rock steady support as the chorus.

The members of the orchestra too were drawn from across the continent and included both new and familiar faces. The opening music was confident and lively, immediately preparing the audience to enjoy the delights to come, the trumpets especially being bright and clear as they would be throughout the evening.

The orchestra is at all times part of the action of each Masque. The strings had great fun with the bird songs and the brass and winds with the Echo music in Act II. The brass particularly gave a brazenly clear and clean performance all evening. Timpanist Phillip Crewe was fittingly dramatic. More delicate was the excellent balance between singers and orchestra, both in volume and in emotional affect. Alexander Weimann conducted from the keyboards, organ and harpsichord. He occasionally joined in the action of the vocalists, for example preventing Mopsa and Coridon from sitting beside each other. Sylvain Bergeron on theorbo and period guitar was outstanding for elegance and engagement. There were times when the orchestra sounded muddy but a fine tone and clarity soon returned.

Purcell was a superb setter of words and a master of love songs. Alas, sloppy diction from Shannon Mercer contributed to If love's a sweet passion being dull and completely defeated the 17th century wit of When I have often heard Maids complaining.

Stage lighting was the only special effect of the evening, well-chosen and delivered by the uncredited lighting technician.

A few quibbles. Information about the edition of text and music was lacking and would have been of interest. Nor was there information about the period instruments or orchestra members.

A promise not fulfilled was the one latent in this programme's sub-title 'a Restoration Spectacular'. While it would be unreasonable to expect the grottoes and gardens, swimming swans and vanishing bridges of the original, costumes and dancing might be seen at the Chan as they have been in the past.

Nevertheless, divorced from other stimuli, a concert version allowed the music to hold centre stage and Purcell to shine. 

© 2009 Elizabeth Paterson