Putting the Bard to music

Actor F. Murray Abraham performed readings from Shakespeare at Tanglewood on Wednesday. He appeared with early music group Le Concert des Nations. Actor F. Murray Abraham performed readings from Shakespeare at Tanglewood on Wednesday. He appeared with early music group Le Concert des Nations. (Hilary Scott)
By David Perkins
Globe Correspondent / July 18, 2009

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LENOX - The use of snippets of Shakespeare to dress up a program of 17th- or 18th-century music is always somehow frustrating. The intent is perfectly good - to liven up the experience. But, even if it’s delivered well, the verse doesn’t add to the music, which must have its own dramatic curve and climax. And the snipping, inevitable to keep the focus on the music, is never good for Shakespeare.

The early music group Le Concert des Nations tried to improve upon the usual formula Wednesday night at Tanglewood by presenting music that was written to accompany the plays in 18th-century London as curtain-raisers and entr’actes. Strictly speaking this proved to be the case with only one set of musical works, and the result was only a partial success, for one reason or another.

The Barcelona-based ensemble, founded and led by the German musicologist and viola da gambist Jordi Savall, is a skilled and widely recorded group, now celebrating its 20th anniversary. The Wednesday concert, one of two here by the group this week, had the added attraction of veteran classical actor F. Murray Abraham.

The first half of the program consisted of little-known short pieces by Robert Johnson, written for court masques (not related to Shakespeare) and Matthew Locke, for a staged version of “The Tempest.’’ These were followed by selections from Henry Purcell’s opera “Fairy Queen,’’ loosely based on Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’’ In the first group, Abraham recited pieces from “Winter’s Tale’’ and “Macbeth,’’ and in the second and third, from the inspirational plays.

Most of the music was written to be danced - as jig, gaillard, chaconne - and has the repetitive structure a dance needs. Frankly, the cumulative effect was a bit boring, without dancers or elaborate sets. Occasionally, however, a little miracle would stand out - Locke’s “Curtain Tune,’’ for example, an amazing evocation of a storm, with its imaginative harmonic and instrumental effects. The Purcell opera is, of course, full of genius, though here shorn of its many beautiful vocal pieces. The playing featured fine solo turns by first violinist Enrico Onofri and theorbist Enrique Solinis. The energy was always up, the ensemble sometimes a bit loose.

One expected a lot from Abraham. He seemed unsettled. He took a while to find a stage position from which to project the verse with a stronger voice. The opening speech from “Winter’s Tale,’’ spoken from midstage, was almost entirely inaudible. Occasionally he came to the front of the stage and projected clearly. Titania’s and Bottom’s post-coital dialogue from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream’’ came off well, as he traded voices of yokel and Fairy Queen. Generally, he spoke too fast and clung too tightly to the script.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, a review of the July 15 Tanglewood performance by the group Le Concert des Nations, published in Saturday’s “g’’ section, incorrectly described the nationality of musicologist and viola da gambist Jordi Savall. He is from Spain.


With F. Murray Abraham

At: Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood, Wednesday night

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