Monday, 28 January 2013

Klaus Nomi sings Purcell

Stream of consciousness takes you in odd directions. What with the recent weather, I just bought a new body warmer, which due to the padding is somewhat higher and wider in the shoulders than I like - so much so that it reminds me of Alex's description of his gang clothing in A Clockwork Orange ...
We wore waisty jackets without lapels but with these very big built-up shoulders ('pletchoes' we called them) which were a kind of mockery of having real shoulders like that.
...and also of the stage costume of the late Klaus Nomi, a German countertenor with a weird Expressionist / punk / camp stage presentation - one reviewer called him "a Weimar version of Mickey Mouse" - and a remarkable vocal range that he used to tackle material from classical opera to covers of 1930s songs and pop across various decades (he had scarcely crossed my mind since I saw him in the early 1980s on BBC2's The Old Grey Whistle Test).

The above video was the one that immediately struck me: The Cold Song (aka What Power Art Thou?) - a countertenor staple now (though originally written for bass) from Purcell and Dryden's semi-opera King Arthur. A creepy, strongly chromatic and melancholy aria, it's sung by a supernatural character, the Cold Genius, when Cupid attempts to rouse him:
What power art thou, who from below
Hast made me rise unwillingly and slow
From beds of everlasting snow?
See'st thou not how stiff and wondrous old
Far unfit to bear the bitter cold,
I can scarcely move or draw my breath?
Let me, let me freeze again to death.
I'd never heard of this work, but as described in the Wikipedia article King Arthur (opera), it seems a bit strange. In part, this is down to the 17th century format of "semi-opera", a kind of musical where not all the characters sing (in the case of King Arthur, only supernatural ones and secondary characters do). It's also an 'everything but the kitchen sink' affair, not based on conventional Arthurian legend but about "Arthur's endeavours to recover his fiancée, the blind Cornish Princess Emmeline, who has been abducted by his arch-enemy, the Saxon King Oswald of Kent" with various supernatural characters from mixed mythoi: Germanic gods and goddesses, Cupid and Venus, and invented ones. There's also a deal of musical and literary borrowing. Dryden's libretto - see King Arthur - or The British Worthy at OperaGlass, has been considered by a number of musical scholars to be a political allegory, in its original form a commentary on the Exclusion Crisis during the reign of Charles II.

Here's a nice video of its Passacaille section from the film England, My England - The Story of Henry Purcell, giving an idea of what its sumptuous production as a 'Restoration spectacular' costing £3000 and "excellently adorned with scenes and machines", might have looked like.

- Ray

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