Henry V Without His Muse of Fire

09/20/2011 9:49 AM |

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The unusual programming at the Philharmonic Saturday night—in a special pre-season concert—was undone by not being unusual enough. The orchestra played an arrangement of William Walton’s score to Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film adaptation of Henry V, joined on a stage packed with musicians and about 75 choristers from two vocal groups by Christopher Plummer in a velvet coat. The esteemed actor devised this piece for actor and orchestra in the 80s—commissioning himself Christopher Palmer’s arrangement, which also incorporates some other Walton music—and last brought to the Philharmonic 15 years ago. In it, he strides the stage, reciting passages from Shakespeare’s play (mostly Henry’s lines, but other characters’ as well) interspersed with bits of score. It’s like a monologue for multiple voices. But the evening’s acting and music proved too conventional to provide insight into the work it remixed.

This felt like stodgy Shakespeare, the bard’s verse treated with staid reverence. The music, mostly big and loud, was very English, the sorts of incidental war marches and Renaissance-style dances that would fit easily into any Robin Hood adaptation but Russell Crowe’s. (Or any Henry V for that matter. Such Briton cliches might be more appropriate to film; on stage, they felt lazy.) Plummer’s oratorical style felt proficient and satisfactory, but dully so, the work of an English actor showing off a beautiful voice backed up by superficial feeling, as in the predictably timed bellows, or the touch of vibrato meant to signify Falstaff.

Thank goodness, then, that the evening began with a clear and steady performance of the first 20 minutes of Wagner’s Tannhauser. Wagner’s operas can be overwhelming, with their epic lengths and inert dramas, but the composer’s ear for melody, his knack for dynamic structure and arrangement, are easily appreciated in small bits like this opera’s overture, which develops a simple, lovely melody until it pours forth over a proto-Tchaikovsky cascade of strings, a nice musical representation of the tears it’s hard not to shed. Even if I can’t help but sing to myself a lyric from “What’s Opera, Doc?” whenever I hear this overture (“Oh Bwoonhilda, yaw so wuvwey.” “Yes, I know it, I can’t help it”), that doesn’t diminish its power. In fact, strangely, it makes it better.