Friday's offering by the Handel and Haydn Society at Jordan Hall was a lively and original combination of English words and music from the late 17th and early 18th centuries - a period of delightful symbiosis that has rarely, if ever, occurred since. The concert was led by Philip Pickett, head of the New London Consort and Musicians of the Globe (Theatre) and an expert in this period, making his first guest appearance with H&H.
In his program notes, Pickett said he wanted to "explore the origins" of the early English opera-musical, the combination of spoken dialogue with (more or less) incidental music that survives in the musicals of Sondheim and Lloyd Webber. That's not what we got, exactly. Still, one left feeling well, sometimes even royally, entertained.
Nicholas Martin and the Huntington Theatre Company collaborated on the spoken selections, and three fine actors (the experienced Blair Brown and Mark Blum and the lovely young Mia Barron) read poetry and short scenes from plays by Congreve, Dryden, Farquhar, and Gay. The scene from the latter's "Beggar's Opera," in which Polly Peachum argues with her parents over her hasty marriage, was delicious, with the three actors projecting an arch energy in Cockney accents that was sometimes missing in their other readings. Placed off to stage left, the actors seemed to be assigned a secondary importance. This was unfortunate, since words demand even more conscious attention than the music - especially these words, with their cleverly knotted conceits.
Meanwhile, we had some fine and rarely heard morsels of music that, though in large part written for court masques rather than public performance, have a tender earthy wit similar to the staged comedies. Perhaps the choicest were taken from John Blow's masque, "Venus and Adonis," and Thomas Linley's musical tribute, "A Shakespeare Ode." In these, instrumental interludes alternate with vocal pieces, sung by soprano Nathalie Paulin and baritone Jason Grant. Each singer had a showpiece as well: Paulin sang Dido's lament from Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas" exquisitely, and Grant made a hilarious turn of "O ruddier than the cherry" from Handel's "Acis and Galatea." The orchestra played with a lovely light step under Pickett, with fine solos or obbligatos by Jesse Levine (trumpet), Stephen Hammer (recorder and oboe), and Kathleen Staten (recorder).
Missing, with the exception of Prospero's farewell from "The Tempest," was spoken passages from the opera-musicals in question, or, for that matter, any music from "Beggar's Opera." This was, therefore, less an exploration of the art form than a view from the bus window of key sites of Restoration music and literature. Let's hope the Handel-Haydn-Huntington collaboration continues. There's more to do. And more ways to do it.