Cast included: Filipa Lã (Venus),
Penny Manser (Adonis), Daniel Keating Roberts (Mars).
To those of us who spend much time involved with its 'straight' sibling, one of the perpetual surprises of music theatre is to find out just who is willing to perform where, and with whom. Music making can much more naturally bring professionals, students and amateurs together on one stage, a circumstance which so often brings out the best in everyone concerned.
A pleasure, then, to find that Sheffield University's Púrpura Project had for musical director none other than Andrew Lawrence-King, who came to prominence as the harpist for Jordi Savall's Hesperion XX and whose Harp Consort has since become a leading force not just in Europe, but around the world. Spurred by his precisely enthusiastic leadership and brilliant solo instrumental work, imaginatively directed by experienced dancer-performer Jane Davidson, Sheffield's mainly student company gave a marvellously invigorating performance of this baroque zarzuela. I wonder if a fully professional production could quite have captured the spirit that made this British premiere so memorably successful?
What strikes us in the theatre even more than on disc is the distance between La púrpura de la rosa and the alternative non-Hispanic theatre worlds of its time. Pedro Calderón de la Barca's text is a distinctive take on the tragic love-triangle of Venus, Adonis and Mars, a subtle mix of high allegorical sentence, popular scenes and lyric strophes already recognisable as essential zarzuela. No other country, not even the England of Blow's Venus and Adonis, can boast such a complex theatrical brew.
Calderón's original musical collaborator Juan Hidalgo was, like Lawrence-King, the pre-eminent harpist of his day. His 1659/60 score is missing presumed lost, and Torrejón's re-setting was commissioned by the Peruvian Viceroy in Lima to celebrate the accession of Philip V in 1701. The manuscript, a through-written tapestry of high-flown aria and strophic songs, comic scenes, impressive ensembles and dance numbers, survived by lucky chance, and has come down to us as one of the very earliest surviving zarzuela scores.
The piece requires extensive realisation. Lawrence-King's was most imaginatively cut and tailored to his Sheffield forces, less reliant on recomposed interpolations and even more chamber-intimate in scale than the Stein version used in his complete recording for Harmonia Mundi. Harp and guitars took the lions' share of the accompaniment, supported by dabs of colour from solo strings, wind and brass, all seasoned by some intriguing South American native percussion. The results were delicate and sensual. As for the cuts, only the spanking scene for the 'low comedy' wife, shorn of its raison d'être by the truncation of an earlier section in which she keeps mum in the face of Mars' suspicious questionings - intruded needlessly out on a politically incorrect limb.
The triangle of lovers at the heart of La púrpura are all sopranos, but Sheffield were fortunate to have the highly promising young, high counter-tenor Daniel Keating Roberts on hand to ring the sexual changes. This emotionally wide-ranging Mars, physically and vocally striking, provided the lynchpin of the drama. Calderón's exploration of his state of mind is the most distinctive and profound feature of the text. The lyric love-scenes for Venus and Adonis provide Torrejón's musical meat. Filipa Lã's Goddess of Love had the requisite vocal warmth and technical security. She was well matched by a notably fresh, ardent and touching Adonis: Penny Manser overcame the handicap of a drab street-arab costume and painted three-day stubble to provide the performance of the evening, a focussed and individual piece of vocal acting.
Notable cameos came from Holly Leonard's Rubenesque Amor, Natalie Ashton's whip-brandishing Belona and baritone Tom Carlisle's paradoxically vigorous Desengaño; but with few weaknesses in the large cast of nymphs, goddesses, allegorical figures, soldiers and comic Arcadians the whole company, not least the excellent instrumentalists under Lawrence-King, brought Torrejón's score urgently to life.
The production looked almost as well as it sounded, with Laura Walmsley using South American dyes, fabrics and motifs to provide some effective eye-candy. Artistic Director Jane Davidson's clean, balletic staging kept the fit young cast (¡ah, envidia!) on the move throughout, baroque gesture, tableau and dance techniques harnessed with point and discretion to shape and give impetus to the action. Mars' visit to the Cave of Disillusion was particularly well conceived, with Desengaño's attendant deadly sins straining to break through a gauze to touch the hapless Mars. Only the film interludes, spliced in at key moments to represent such things as the magic mirror enabling the God of War to spy on the lovers, jarred by reason of technical limitation and stylistic discontinuity.
As a joint production of Sheffields Hispanic and Music Departments the Púrpura Project was perforce in Spanish. At the heart of this decision lay understandable respect for a rich text by one of the world's greatest playwrights. Calderón's verse can be elaborate or direct, lyrically warm or almost cruelly detached by turns. The team of hispanists under project leader Anthony Trippett had ensured that the cast understood - and clearly communicated - what was being said at nearly every moment. The special balance between text and music so crucial to La Zarzuela was well maintained.
Luckily, the Sheffield La púrpura de la rosa is to be seen elsewhere. It will provide an authentic taste of the potent charms of Baroque zarzuela for anyone fortunate enough to catch it. Anthony Trippett, Andrew Lawrence-King, Jane Davidson and their team are to be heartily congratulated on bringing this most valuable project to such full, joyous and illuminating life.
© Christopher Webber 2003