Philharmonia Baroque: Dioclesian Dressed to Dazzle

Georgia Rowe on October 5, 2012
Nicolas McGegan
Nicolas McGegan

When people say they don’t make entertainment like they used to, they may be referring to the Dioclesian. Fully titled The Prophetess; or, the History of Dioclesian, Henry Purcell’s 1690 semi-opera has it all: fabulous music; an epic story of love, lust, and politics; and enough special effects to fill a feature film.

It’s a captivating score, and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra gave it a spectacular performance Wednesday night at the Menlo-Atherton Center for the Performing Arts. The two-hour program, which opens the early-music ensemble’s 32nd season, repeats through the weekend in San Francisco and Berkeley.

Like other semi-operas (including Purcell’s King Arthur, which was a follow-up hit to this work), Dioclesian consists of various short works for orchestra, vocalists, and chorus — vigorous dances, pastoral episodes, instrumental interludes, serene solo numbers, lively duets and ensembles, and large choral outbursts. Of particular interest are the masques sung by minor characters: gods and goddesses, shepherds, and the like.

Purcell and librettist Thomas Betterton, who relied on a Jacobean tragicomedy by John Fletcher and Philip Massinger (which, in turn, was based on the life of the third-century Roman emperor Diocletian), tell the story of a Roman foot soldier who rises, through an unlikely set of circumstances, all the way to the imperial throne.

It’s an age-old struggle between love and duty. Diocles comes to the attention of the prophetess Delphia, who advises him that he will become emperor when he has killed a great boar. When he slays a soldier named Volutius Aper — whose name means Wild Boar — he wins the hand of Delphia’s niece, Drusilla. Once engaged, however, Diocles (now named Dioclesian) decides he’d rather marry Aurelia, the sister of the former emperor. Delphia, enraged, unleashes storms, various spells, even a monster sent down to upend the nuptials, whereupon a chastened Dioclesian returns to the original plan and marries Drusilla. The work concludes with lavish festivities in honor of Love.

Purcell responded to the story with a wealth of music.

Purcell responded to the story with a wealth of music — zesty hornpipes leading to boastful odes, a martial song yielding to a diaphanous chaconne for flutes. It’s probably just as well that we didn’t see the score’s “Chair Dance” as it was originally staged, yet the vocal numbers for fawns, bacchanals, shepherds, and shepherdesses are beguiling. It’s all amusingly over the top (several times during Wednesday’s performance, I found myself wishing that Mark Morris would make a dance for this score), and if it lacks a measure of cohesion — characters tend to pop up and just as quickly vanish — Dioclesian never lacks for musical interest.

Finesse and Insight at Hand

Music Director Nicholas McGegan, conducting the first Philharmonia Baroque performance of the work, marshaled his forces brilliantly. The conductor led with his customary blend of finesse, buoyancy, and musical insight, and the orchestra responded with playing of tremendous verve and precision. The results were both musically rewarding and aptly large-scale, with excellent contributions from the violins led by Concertmaster Lisa Weiss, and outstanding individual work by trumpeters Katherine Adduci and Fred Holmgren, recordists Hanneke van Proosdij and Stephen Bard, and David Tayler on theorbo.

The results were both musically rewarding and aptly large-scale.

Among the vocal soloists, countertenor Clifton Massey was the evening’s standout. Singing with gloriously rounded tone and a measure of heft often missing in proponents of his voice type, he projected with clear definition in duets and ensembles, and made his Act 4 solo, “Still I’m wishing, still desiring,” a tender, ravishing episode.

The remaining soloists, drawn from Bruce Lamott’s Philharmonia Chorale, acquitted themselves handsomely. Tenors Jonathan Smucker and Brian Thorsett delivered a lusty “Oh, the sweet delights of love,” and soprano Helene Zindarsian and bass-baritone John Bischoff paired nicely in the duet “Tell me why, my charming fair.” Countertenor John-Paul Jones and baritone Jeff Fields made essential contributions. The chorus, as always, got the last word, with “Triumph, victorious Love” conferring a sublime benediction on all that had come before.