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Purcell Upstaged


The theater music of Henry Purcell is rich with ornamentation. It had to be-if it was going to match the elaborate special effects that graced the stage in 17″- century London. The stage directions for the 1691 production of Dioclesion show that Purcell’s music was constantly in danger of being upstaged.

While a symphony is playing a machine descends, so large it fills all the space from the frontispiece of the stage to the farther end of the house, and fixes itself by two ladders of clouds to the floor. In it are several stages representing the palaces of two gods and two goddesses. The first is the Palace of Flora — the columns of red and white marble breaking through the clouds, the columns — fluted and wreathed about with all sorts of flowerage, the pedestals and flutings enriched with gold. The last is the Palace of the Sun. It is supported on either side by rows of Tosses, the lower part white marble, the upper part gold.

The whole object is terminated with a glowing cloud on which is a Chair of State, all of gold, the sun breaking through the cloud and making glory about it. As this descends, there rises from under the stage a pleasant prospect of a noble garden consisting of fountains and orange trees set in large vases. The middle walk leads to a palace at great distance.

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Then the actors came in–gods, goddesses, fauns, nymphs, shepherds and shepherdesses, as well as singers and dancers. And that was just the beginning. At one point in the drama the special effects included distant thunder created by a channel with steps through which cannon balls were rolled. Close thunder came from a closed box filled with rocks tipped from side to side. Wind came from a machine said to be so ingenious that its design has changed little from Purcell’s time to our own. In Act Three, figures embroidered on tapestries step out and dance, then sit on chairs which, in turn, slip out and join in the dancing.

One other phenomenon occasionally overshadowed Purcell’s music — the tendency of some audience members to climb onstage and participate in the plays.

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