Arts: Music of the Spheres the Black Arts, High Drama, Philosophy and Poetry: John Harle's Opera, Angel Magick, Set in 16th-Century England Has It All (Even Queen Elizabeth I Pops in for Tea). and It Still Manages to Break the Rules
Johnson, Phil, The Independent (London, England)
The domestic arrangements in the Mortlake home of John Dee, Elizabethan magus and neo-Platonist herald of the English renaissance, might not at first sight seem to provide the ideal setting for a contemporary opera, even if Good Queen Bess is always popping in for tea. What with the poets Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser arguing the toss, and that Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno putting his oar in, there is an awful lot of ideas to contend with.
And then there's the odd couple, of crusty Dr Dee and his frankly rather difficult assistant, Edward Kelley, always trying to summon up angels with those spells of theirs. What poor old Mrs Dee makes of it, God knows, and she's not looking too well either, if you ask me.
But out of this late-16th century soap, the composer John Harle and his librettist David Pountney have made an opera of the proper sort, and one which almost breaks the rules of the genre by appearing to work as drama as well as music. Spells are cast, angels are summoned, and the characters exchange views on the music of the spheres and other recondite matters, but as singers and actors in a theatrical space they succeed in holding your attention. And although the piece deals with complex ideas in a fairly complex manner, it remains clear and direct almost throughout, even if a little background reading would enhance a greater appreciation of the historical background.
Given a sneak preview as part of the Salisbury Festival in May, Angel Magick proved to be a resounding success. The singing, by Sarah Leonard as Queen Elizabeth, William Purefoy as Sidney, Jacqueline Miura as Spenser, Andrew Forbes-Lane as Bruno, and Donald Maxwell as Kelley, was particularly fine, and Christopher Good in the non- singing role of Dr Dee provided a satisfyingly down-to-earth centre for the airy perorations of the other principals to revolve around. The music - by the Bauhaus Band and Fretwork, conducted by Harle himself - served the purposes of the drama admirably, and it remained suitably rigorous in its attention to historical detail while never descending into the kind of cod-Elizabethan pastiche that could have been expected. Only the taped voice that was used to declaim the equivalent of chapter headings at the beginning of each movement (which follow an astrological sequence of planets) jarred a little, sounding perhaps a little too close to Mastermind for comfort.
On the morning of the first of the two performances at Salisbury, John Harle could be heard as the guest on Desert Island Discs, and his incredibly wide-ranging selections perhaps provide a clue to Angel Magick's musical influences. As a schoolboy at the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle-upon- Tyne (he traces his love of history to being taught there by William Feaver, now The Observer's art critic), in the late Sixties, Harle fell under the spell of Pentangle, the pop-folk group whose guitarist, John Renbourn, used to play a number of transcriptions from both Elizabethan and Jacobean sources.
The Desert Island selection also included a tune by The Beatles, testifying to Harle's abiding belief in melody; a piece by Duke Ellington, whose alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges' limpidly beautiful tone was one of the reasons Harle took up the saxophone (still considered a rather vulgar arriviste in the classical world) as well as the clarinet; and an excerpt from one of Harrison Birtwistle's most confrontational works, the mini- opera Punch and Judy, whose proud dissonances must have led to pre-Sunday lunch panic attacks in the kitchens of the nation. …