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John Harle

Publisher: Chester Music

Angel Magick (1997)
commissioned by the BBC for the 1998 Proms Season
Text Writer
David Poutney
Chester Music Ltd
Opera and Music Theatre
Year Composed
1 Hour 15 Minutes
soprano, 2 countertenors, low contralto, baritone, actor
Programme Note
John Harle Angel Magick (1997)

John Dee and his "scryer", Edward Kelly, are preparing for the climactic phase of their experiments in summoning Angels, who Dee believed would be able to reveal to him the secrets of the universe. In such seances, it was traditional for the Magus (Dee) to conduct the ritual, and the Scryer to look into the stone. The Magus would then record what the Scryer saw and heard. Much of the libretto of Angel Magick derives from Dee’s meticulous notes of these sessions.

The opera is in seven parts, marked by the naming of seven planets, and their appropriate angels.

SATURN - The Angel Zabethiel.
Dee and Kelly’s preparations are interrupted by the arrival of the poets Sir Philip Sydney and Edmund Spenser, who together with Dee were members of a group calling themselves "Areopagus" - whose aims were to explore the connection between the metre of Greek poetry and the pulse of the universe. In their world view, Music, Astronomy and Poetry were scientifically linked disciplines.

JUPITER - The Angel Zedekiel
Jane, Dee’s wife, brings a brickbat with which their son has hurt himself. Dee examines it with scientific precision, and sees the accident as the outcome of "number"; Kelly is more attentive to Jane’s emotional state.
A very irate Queen Elizabeth complains that the explorer Frobisher has returned from his expedition to Labrador with gold which turns out to be Pyrite - "Fool’s Gold". She demands that Dee use alchemy to turn the useless "mud" into real gold.

MARS - The Angel Madimiel
Dee attempts to distract the Queen from this unfulfillable demand by performing the Masques of Navigation, Poetry, and Alchemy. In the course of the latter, the Queen remembers that in the grip of her fury, she has left the famous Magus and philosopher Giordano Bruno, waiting outside. He makes a histrionic appearance, in the course of which he does change the Pyrite into Gold.

THE SUN - The Angel Semeliel
The Queen leaves with her gold, and Bruno and Dee enjoy the rare discourse of equals. After Bruno’s departure, Dee orders Kelly to continue with the preparations.
Kelly is reluctant. In previous sessions, the Angel Madimi has appeared to imply that Dee and Kelly should share their wives in common. Kelly is simultaneously attracted and terrified by the extremes to which Dee’s experiments are pushing him. Dee loses the crystal - the "stone" in which the angels appear - but the angels have told Kelly it will be found under Jane Dee’s pillow. It is, and Dee takes this as a sign that they must continue.

VENUS - The Angel Nogabel
Madimi appears and repeats her command to "lay your bodies to labour, and participate one with another." Dee insists that they demand confirmation of this shocking command, and two other angels, Il and Uriel, reply: "We speak of the Spirit AND the flesh."

MERCURY - The Angel Corabiel
Dee attempts, with a mixture of cajolery and force, to explain to Jane Dee that she must go through with this "crossmatching". The Angel Raphael orders that they draw up a Covenant between the four parties. Dee, becoming increasingly fanatical, resumes the evocation which will summon the last most intimate and extreme Angel.
At the climax of his appearance the angels question Dee and Kelly: "Did you do it?" They reply: "Yes, we have done it."

THE MOON - The Angel Lavaniel
The Angels leave, and Dee dismisses Kelly, suddenly aware that his experiment has been a vain and damaging delusion. At last, he names the final planet and its angel:

THE EARTH - The Angel is Man.

  • 21 JUL 1998
    Angel Magick London Premiere
    BBC Proms
    Albert Hall, London
    The Bauhaus Band
    Donald Maxwell, baritone / William Purefoy, counter-tenor / Jacqueline Miura, mezzo-soprano / Sarah Leonard, soprano / David Pountney, director; John Harle, conductor
  • 24 MAY 1998
    Angel Magick World Premiere
    Salisbury Festival
    Salisbury Playhouse, Salisbury
    The Bauhaus Band
    John Harle, conductor

    Other Dates:
    25 May - Salisbury Playhouse, Salisbury

...out of this late-16th century soap, the composer John Harle and his librettist David Pountney have made an opera of the proper sort, and one which almost breaks the rules of the genre by appearing to work as drama as well as music. Spells are cast, angels are summoned, and the characters exchange views on the music of the spheres and other recondite matters, but as singers and actors in a theatrical space they succeed in holding your attention...Angel Magick proved to be a resounding success. ...the non-singing role of Dr Dee provided a satisfyingly down-to-earth centre for the airy perorations of the other principals to revolve around. The music served the purposes of the drama admirably, and it remained suitably rigorous in its attention to historical detail while never descending into the kind of cod-Elizabethan pastiche that could have been expected.
Phil Johnson, The Independent,21/07/1998
...a moving affirmation of the humanist spirit contained in the English renaissance. And it was - perhaps surprisingly, given the complexity of the ideas involved - transfiguringly good. ...the music never upstaged the carefully wrought unity of the performance as a whole. Angel Magik was, in the words of Sir Philip Sidney, a delight from start to finish.
The Independent,01/05/1998
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