Burying The Dead at Brighton Early Music Festival - review

REVIEW BY Richard Amey

'Burying The Dead' (Clare Norburn) - Cerulio - Jenni Harper, Niall Ashdown (Purcell), Emily Owen, Toby Carr - pic by Robert Piwko
'Burying The Dead' (Clare Norburn) - Cerulio - Jenni Harper, Niall Ashdown (Purcell), Emily Owen, Toby Carr - pic by Robert Piwko

Clare Norburn’s ‘Burying The Dead’ at Brighton Early Music Festival (BREMF), St George’s Kemp Town, Thursday 31 October 2019.

Ceruleo: Emily Owen, Jenni Harper sopranos; Toby Carr guitar, theorbo; Kate Conway viola de gamba; Satoko Doi-Luck harpsichord; with actor Niall Ashdown as Henry Purcell. Thomas Guthrie director, Hanna Pearson costume designer.

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Pete Townshend of The Who, singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley, composer Benjamin Britten . . . what have these 20th Century musical figures in common? An admiration for Henry Purcell, the leading British composer of the Baroque.

Ask the man or woman in the concert hall foyer to think Baroque and they’ll think Bach. Those three men thought Purcell. Clare Norburn was on their page. She could easily and popularly have written about JS, the German of immense compositional and procreating output. But no.

Using theatre to advance early music is a key BREMF offshoot into the arts world. Norburn, former festival co-founder and director, is now independently developing this area of historical performance through her own writing and singing. She floated it at the Festival in 2013 with ‘Breaking The Rules’, about Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo – and has since spread her work elsewhere.

She leads the present increase in this furtherance of Early Music appreciation as an open door to a stranger. Focusing on the biography of major arts figures – in her case variously documented and speculated – it’s a form proven on radio. But it needed someone of her scholarship and informed imagination with the courage and conviction to launch it into live music presentation.

The night-shirted Henry Purcell talks to the audience from his bedroom, sometimes wryly, sometime cheekily recounting his career. Cerulio’s sopranos act out people in his story, including Emily Owen as his exasperated mother, then a neighbour, a school friend and his wife, and Jenni Harper as a cherished neighbour of the musically famed Gibbons family, and most prominently as Letitia, the racy 14-year-old star performer in some of his operas.

Niall Ashdown, whose improvisational skills come amusingly to the fore, is roguely loveable as Purcell, who deftly ducks and dives in the whitewater of his dealings and predicaments with these women, while trying to forge a London career from the average turbulence of a composer’s household.

Norburn at last is able to unbutton her capacity for comedy in lighter scenario than her previous music-plays on the polymath abbess Hildegarde of Bingen, troubadour Beatriz de Dia of Provence, the anguished Carlo Gesualdo, and the gruff-humoured Beethoven of his burdened final years.

More laughter is to come, I hear, in her new ‘Creating Carmen’ which will appear at St George’s on November 22 (7.30pm) almost a fortnight after BREMF completes. Leaping forward more than 100 years, this looks at Prosper Merimée’s relationship with the living female prototype of his novella that Bizet made spectacularly into his own Carmen opera.

In ‘Burying The Dead’ there is clever stagecraft, notably the Great Fire of London’s flames in Pitchblack’s lighting and the actors’ crackling evocation of stricken blazing wooden buildings numbering 70,000 of the 80,000 population’s homes.

And if ‘Burying The Dead’ sounds an overbearingly sober title to what amounted to another of BREMF’S fun events, Norburn tells us that the Fire’s death toll was small, but before that, in the Great Plague, Purcell lost his father. The aural apparition of that is the slow clop of horses and call of a bell as the carts collect the dead which Londoners bring out, for burial later after dark. Purcell also numbers the children he and Frances produced, and their high mortality rate.

The all-Purcell musical dimension of the show is remarkable. A stark three-piece line-up, placed intelligently around the stage, achieves luxuriance with warmly glittering harpsichord, smooth viola da gamba and velvety strumming baroque guitar or renaissance theorbo. The trio alertly sets scenes, reacts with power and sensitivity to the drama, sounds even as the Purcell quill composes on the stage, and accompanies songs Norburn selects which survive opera plots mainly too tame to interest audiences since.

There were some exceptions. Notably Dido And Aeneas, of course, and The Faery Queen, whose Entrance Of The Night, for Norburn’s purpose, accompanies the dead being brought out. The rondo Abdelazar, so familiar since Britten’s Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra, lifts the start of the second half like a bright new dawn.

Yet how uncannily the title ‘Burying The Dead’ alludes to the Purcell music that succeeds most in our day. As Henry thinks of all his closest friends now died, Fear No Danger from Dido and Aeneas, is simply gorgeous, the mellower tone of Owen blending poignantly again with the lighter agility of Harper’s. And, sung by Harper, Dido’s lament When I Am Laid In Earth (which surely immortalises Buckley in his own fragile cover version before his tragic death by drowning) can only close the show.

Buckley, in both his performance of it and in a 1994 interview, uttered an inspirational artistic reminder to singers of Early Music taking up such familiar and powerful vehicles for vocal talent. He said, “I’ve always felt that the quality of the voice is where the real content [of a song] lies. Words only suggest an experience, but the voice is that experience.”

REVIEW BY Richard Amey