|Brandywine Baroque orchestra members rehearse "The Woodman."
Photo courtesy of Brandywine Baroque.
Monday, October 9, 2017
By Christine Facciolo
founding artistic director of Brandywine Baroque, harpsichordist Flint
consistently presents programs that feature works by the well-known and
not-so-well-known — though no less worthy — composers of the period. Moreover, her
collection of rare (and playable) harpsichords draws devotees and scholars from
around the country and the world to the Centreville venue, The Barn at
There’s no denying Karen Flint’s contribution to the cultural life of our region.
Flint and company opened the 2017-18 season with a performance of as rare a gem as any: The Woodman (1791) by English opera composer William Shield. This all-but-forgotten work is so obscure that Flint and fellow harpsichordist Janine Johnson had to prepare an orchestration from a piano/vocal reduction, the only existing score for the opera.
Shield is one of those composers whose legacy history seems to have erased. Born in 1748 in Swalwell, Shield arrived in London in 1772 to play the violin in the Coven Garden Orchestra. In 1791, he met Haydn who attended a performance of The Woodman. That meeting inspired him to compose more operas and stage works. Shield’s work as a composer got him noticed in royal circles and in 1817 he was appointed “Master of the King’s Musick.”
Like many of his contemporaries, Shield looked toward folk music for source material. In
fact, it was once thought that he wrote Auld Lang Syne, the melody of which appears toward the end of the overture to his Rosina opera. It is now thought that both he and Burns borrowed the melody — or at least the outline of it — from an old folk tune.
Shield’s work is considered to be the forerunner of the modern musical comedy. The Woodman contains features associated with later English comic opera, including spoken dialogue, a frothy theme and the use of popular and folk melodies. The music is pastoral, even bubbly, with flashes of coloratura.
The plot is a madcap thicket of love found, lost and recovered. Emily (Laura Heimes) has fallen in love with Wilford (Stephen Ng) but his nasty uncle does not approve and sends him off to Europe. When Wilford returns, Emily has fled to the forest where three other men fall in love with her. Mistaken identities and all sorts of mischief follow in this lively romp through the woods capped off by a female archery contest for a price heifer.
Flint assembled a stellar cast of singers and musicians for this superb rendering of this woefully overlooked gem. Heimes is vocally striking — as usual — in her portrayal of Emily. Ng brings a full-bodied tenor and lovelorn urgency to Wilford, her lost love.
Bass Daniel Schwartz excelled in his portrayal of the upright and kindly Fairlop, the woodman, while sopranos Abigail Chapman and Rebecca Mariman were convincing as his daughters, the steady Dolly and coquettish Polly, respectively.
Baritone James Wilson played the lecherous Sir Walter to the hilt accompanied by his ever-loyal sidekick Medley in the capable hands and voice of tenor Andrew Fuchs.Tenor Lawrence Jones displayed a much misplaced confidence as he assisted Wilford in his quest to find Emily.
But it was countertenor Augustine Mercante, wigged in bight orange ringlets, who elicited the most laughter in his portrayal of Miss Dinah “Di” Clackit. Mercante not only possesses a sumptuous voice but also impeccable comedic timing that never missed a beat.
Musicians from the ensemble also took part in the action with non-singing roles: flutist
Eileen Grycky, violist Amy Leonard, double bassist Heather Miller Landin served as archers (Grycky also played Bridget the maid). Violinists Martin Davids and Edward Huizinga played Filbert, the Gardener and Bob, respectively.
Imaginative costumes and props transported the audience from Centreville to an 18th Century English forest.