Gotham Chamber Opera’s staging of “The Tempest Songbook,” performed in the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, alternated the songs of Kaija Saariaho’s 2004 cycle based on Shakespeare with pieces, attributed to Henry Purcell, that were written in the 1690s for a production of Dryden’s version of the play. Immaculately performed by soprano Jennifer Zetlan, bass-baritone Thomas Richard, and an eight-member period-instrument orchestra conducted by Neal Goren, it was remarkable how vigorously these very different musical languages spoke to each other.
Purcell’s Overture in G minor, which had the rhythmic weight of a processional, was succeeded by Ms. Saariaho’s “Bosun’s Cheer,” in which Mr. Richard’s clamorous Sprechstimme cries of a mariner trying to keep his ship afloat rose over the skittering instrumental evocation of the violent storm. It was a contrast, but somehow in the same family. Ms. Saariaho wrote a song for each of the familiar characters of the play—Miranda, Caliban, Ariel, Prospero and Ferdinand—and her densely harmonic, visceral style, with its dark, sensual intensity, perfectly captured the dangerous magic of the play. In “Caliban’s Dream,” the insinuating, slightly grotesque vocal line seemed as organic and connected to the earth as Caliban himself; in “Ariel’s Hail,” sliding, glistening violin solos contrasted with the thrumming of heavy bass notes on the archlute and the harpsichord to make Ariel a strange but alluring alien being.
Yet distinctively modern as this music was, the Purcell songs in between did not seem jarring at all. For the most part, their role was to bring a cheerier note to the story—“Halcyon Days” offered a vision of a happy future, for example—but their surface brightness and civility got an undercurrent of menace from the tangy, rhythmically articulate performances of the period instruments.
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