(This review was written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Luke Quinton.)
Director Daniel Johnson has always seasoned the Texas Early Music Project with a generous dollop of humor — even between the austerity of old sacred, near-chanted hymns there are winks and nods and pieces of knowledge to drop.
But lately it seems Johnson’s found a kindred spirit in Meredith Ruduski.
The Austin soprano is an early music fixture as a singer, but it turns out the Ruduski-Johnson pairing aligns with a sense of humor too.
I never find it particularly hard to relate to early music. The ancient sounds seem to do the work of time travel on your behalf, and at least on an emotional level, you connect. But TEMP’s mini chamber operas are, at least as Johnson and Ruduski see it, all but begging to be plopped into a modern context. And they’re not wrong.
To make it modern, TEMP made a semi-opera called “The Camping Trip” from a papier-mache of songs and texts, early music ballads and plot points from Henry Purcell’s “The Fairy Queen” (1692), a story lifted from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” But the source of songs is also much more varied — tunes from Purcell’s “King Arthur” as well as anonymous texts.
In “The Camping Trip,” three fairies are about to perform a ceremony in the woods, and we’re prepared for a period opera. But out of the church’s entrance doors spring three dudes in flannel. They walk up to the fairies (who are invisible to the mortals), and declare the fairie-ring a solid place to put their beer cooler for the night of camping.
The shabby campers add a refreshing element of contemporary impropriety into what’s normally a rather high falutin exercise, and the dialogue follows suit. An Anonymous 1679 text “Amintas, to my grief I see,” swaps out Amintas for “Ryan,” who’s dying to talk to his girlfriend, but has no bars on his cell phone.
“So I have seen some wretched slave/ A wanton girl’s attention crave,/ Despise his health and wealth at will/ Until he gets his iPhone bill.”
The text continues: “Take my word that this is true:/ Leave her alone, and you do you.”
The fairies start to take revenge on the interlopers, and they get their way, as they usually do, but they do it through bawdy tunes and a little magic.
Throughout the comedy we have outstanding singing from countertenor Ryland Angel, who, like the rest of the cast, really nails the comic timing. Sopranos Meredith Ruduski and Jenifer Thyssen, as well as baritone Peter Walker stand out too.
The end, well, it isn’t really the end.
A few alternate endings are funny but don’t quite convince you they belong in the plot. They do make way for a bit more comedy though, notably from one character who announces how disappointed he is to be dying in “a horrible [beat]/ Shakespearean [beat]/ Tragical [beat]/ Kind of way.” Saying this as he runs from one side of the stairs to the other.
The Sunday matinee was as packed as I’d ever seen a Texas Early Music Project concert. Extra seating was brought in to accommodate folks in the center walkway. A triumph of Sunday afternoon timing, no doubt, but also a testament to the long memory of TEMP audiences who appreciate the pure slapstick joy and the musicality of these neat mini operas.