Sunday 6 January 2019

Diverse tapestry: Clare Norburn's 'Burying the Dead' at Baroque at the Edge

Clare Norburn: Burying the Dead - Ceruleo (Photo Robert Piwko)
Clare Norburn: Burying the Dead - Ceruleo (Photo Robert Piwko)
Henry Purcell, Clare Norburn Burying the Dead; Niall Ashdown, Ceruleo, dir: Thomas Guthrie; Baroque at the Edge Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 October 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Clare Norburn's latest concert drama takes us into the dying Henry Purcell's bedroom, populated by characters from his life and from his dramas

Clare Norburn: Burying the Dead - Ceruleo (Photo Robert Piwko)
Clare Norburn: Burying the Dead - Ceruleo (Photo Robert Piwko)
Clare Norburn is becoming known for her concert dramas, music theatre pieces dealing usually with a classical composer which combine plays with music with drama in a way which illuminates the subject. I first saw one of them in 2013 when Breaking the Rules was presented at BREMF, with Finbar Lynch as the dying Gesualdo and the Marian Consort singing the composer's music, madrigals and sacred pieces, in a way which illuminated the composer's thoughts, and Norburn's subsequent concert dramas have treated subjects as diverse as Galileo (whose father was a composer), Hildegard of Bingen, and Beethoven.

Clare Norburn's Burying the Dead debuted last year and having been performed at a number of venues and festivals in the UK, came to London on Saturday 5 January 2019 as part of the Baroque at the Edge festival at LSO St Luke's. The work is written for the early music ensemble Ceruleo, Emily Owen and Jenni Harper (sopranos), Satoko Doi-Luck (harpsichord), Kate Conway (cello), Toby Carr (theorbo) with actor Niall Ashdown, directed by Thomas Guthrie. The piece takes us into the composer Henry Purcell's bedroom as lays dying of a fever in 1695, and his imagination peoples the room with both real beings and characters from pieces he has written.

We have very little concrete biographical information about Purcell, so Norburn has had a relatively free reign in terms of the details. She brings in the known facts and weaves about them a convincing narrative which encompasses Henry remembering key moments from his life such as the Great Plague of 1665 when Henry would have been six, and the Fire of London in 1666, when he was seven, as well as the death of Queen Mary. But also the deaths in childhood of many of the Purcell's children.

Clare Norburn: Burying the Dead - Ceruleo (Photo Robert Piwko)
Clare Norburn: Burying the Dead - Ceruleo (Photo Robert Piwko)
The two sopranos Emily Owen and Jenni Harper played all the other women in Henry's life, from his wife Frances, a talented singer whose role dwindled under the strains of marriage and repeated child-bearing, to the various actresses for whom Henry wrote music. Some of the set-ups felt a little strained, but the way the drama allowed a remarkable cross section of Purcell's music to be performed was quite striking. In a couple of places, such as the introduction of one of Purcell's mad songs, if you did not know the music being performed then its relevance to the drama might have seemed a little tangential.

The two sopranos bore the brunt of the musical contribution, finely supported by the instrumentalists whose role was certainly not a passive one and whose contributions varied from the instrumental to the dramatic. Actor Niall Ashdown also sang, displaying a serviceable voice which enabled the young Henry's wooing of his wife Frances to be remembered in duet form.

Inevitably, given the performing forces (two sopranos, theorbo/guitar, cello, and harpsichord) there was an emphasis on Purcell's chamber music, songs, and theatre pieces whilst the sacred music was rather skipped over, and for Queen Mary's death we got the Latin duet O dive custos rather than the Funeral Sentences. But there was so much musical treasure trove to mine that this hardly mattered.

Niall Ashdown made an engaging Henry, using a lot of humour in the presentation and often addressing the audience directly. This was a lively staging which reflected the variety of Purcell's music and kept moving in a way which could have seemed rather scatter-shot but which the performers made work by their engagement with both the material and with the audience.

We ended with 'Dido's Lament' from Dido and Aeneas, again the set up seemed slightly contrived but lacking much concrete biographical evidence relating to the opera this was perhaps inevitable and finishing with one of Purcell's greatest laments the perfect way to end.

Clare Norburn: Burying the Dead - Ceruleo (Photo Robert Piwko)
Clare Norburn: Burying the Dead - Ceruleo (Photo Robert Piwko)
Purcell's life (as documented) lacks the sort of essential single element of drama which drove Norburn's pieces about Gesualdo and about Galileo, and instead, she presents us with a diverse tapestry of Restoration Life. Lacking the powerful bite of Breaking the Rules, the piece gave us an engaging romp with serious moments which helped illuminate the diverse repertoire of music.

Baroque at the Edge famously declares that the festival does without programme notes, which is an interesting and in some ways admirable concept, but for this piece, I think that having a handy list of all the music performed would have been helpful, particularly for those who wanted to explore further.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Rediscovering her Polish musical roots: violinist Jennifer Pike on the personal connections in her latest disc, The Polish Violin - interview 
  • Strong and vibrant: Tallis masses and motets from the Chapel Royal at Hampton Court (★★★★) - CD review
  • Bach's Goldberg Variations - CD review
  • 2018 in opera and concert reviews - article
  • Concerto for silent soloists: my encounter with Gavin Sutherland, music director of English National Ballet - interview
  • That Old Thing: remembering Covent Garden's revivals of historic productions in the 1980s - article
  • The Medieval Tendency - article
  • Bach's Christmas Oratorio at the St John's Smith Square Christmas Festival (★★★★) - concert review
  • Illuminating a neglected work: John Andrews & the BBC Concert Orchestra revive Sir Arthur Sullivan's sacred oratorio, The Light of the World  (★★★★★)  - CD review
  • Seasonal touches: The Tallis Scholas & Peter Phillips at St John's Smith Square's Christmas Festival (★★★★) - concert review
  • The Dead City: Robert Carsen's production of Korngold's Die tote Stadt at the Komische Oper, Berlin  (★★★★) - Opera review
  • Cause for Celebration: Roxanna Panufnik on the Last Night of the Proms & commemorating the Centenary of Polish Independence - interview
  • The Sixteen at Christmas - The Little Child  at Cadogan Hall (★★★★) - concert review
  • A mash up of Gilbert & Sullivan and the Carry On films: Straus' The Pearls of Cleopatra at the Komische Oper, Berlin  (★★★★★) - opera review
  • Home

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