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King of Pain

Baritone Christoper Purves sings Golaud in Glyndebourne’s new Pelléas.
By Adam Wasserman 

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© Chris Gloag
Our job [is] to go a little bit further than just beautiful singing.”
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CHRISTOPHER PURVES can transform menace into a thing of beauty. Wielding a baritone as emotionally expressive as it is precise, Purves embodies characters who seethe and rage and curse with a disarming cantabile. Now fifty-six, and in the second decade of his career, Purves has established himself as one of the opera world’s most compelling singing actors.

In last June’s staged concert performances of Rheingold with the New York Philharmonic, Purves’s Alberich—a character typically executed with sprechstimme growls—was ennobled by a bel canto elegance that unmoored the opera’s already shaky moral ground: hearing Purves utter “Bin ich nun frei?,” one could be forgiven for mistaking Wagner’s dwarf for the opera’s hero.

“It’s very important to understand that there are many different ways that a monster will speak. He won’t always be gruff and horrible,” says Purves by phone from his home in Oxford, where he enjoys a quiet life with his wife and three children. “I think if there is just a touch of humanity in even the most despicable monster, then audiences will understand. They will go with you.” 

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With Tim Mead and Barbara Hannigan in Written on Skin at Lincoln Center, 2015
© Richard Termine

Next month, Purves sings Golaud in Glyndebourne’s new Pelléas et Mélisande, directed by Stefan Herheim. Golaud, which Purves first sang at Welsh National Opera in 2015, is clearly a character that still fascinates him. But asking Purves about the role immediately compels the baritone to raise the subject of an entirely different opera—George Benjamin’s Written on Skin. Singing the role of the Protector in the world premiere of Benjamin’s opera at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2012 was a breakout moment for Purves, and the baritone followed Katie Mitchell’s enthralling production through dozens of subsequent performances in Europe, eventually bringing it to the Mostly Mozart Festival in New York. The striking parallels between The Protector and Golaud have been on Purves’s mind since he first laid eyes on the score for Skin. “There is so much common ground between the two. This whole business of putting one’s trust in someone from the outside.… Pelléas has an affair with Golaud’s wife—it’s exactly the same thing with the Protector and the Boy in Written on Skin. I draw on a lot of similar emotional content,” Purves says. “George would never say, ‘Yeah, look, I’ve taken quite a lot from Golaud,’ but some of the musical themes that come out in the Protector are there in the Debussy.” 

It’s an indication of Purves’s commitment to his dramatic craft that he takes pains to praise Martin Crimp’s libretto for Skin. “Sometimes I think that, as opera singers, we don’t try hard enough to bring everything alive—to look at the libretto and say, ‘That’s the most important word. Now how am I going to make that the most important word?’ You’ve got to try, and if it means that you roughen up your cords a little bit, that’s our job—to go a little bit further than just beautiful singing.” 

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As Don Giovanni at ENO, 2016
© Robert Workman

Purves spent a decade as a chorister prior to pursuing a career in opera. A choral scholar while at King’s College, Purves freelanced with several groups and went on to become a regular with the esteemed British ensemble The Sixteen. “The thing about being in the great choral tradition in Britain is you pride yourself on being able to subsume your ego with the rest of the group,” he says. It wasn’t until he was in his thirties that the baritone felt the urge to branch out and began taking voice lessons. “As the youngest of four boys, I’ve always had the propensity to be a showoff. I realized it was a sort of prerequisite to being able to show what you’re able to do onstage. I took back my own identity from the choral scene and took my voice into a larger arena.” 

Now the baritone’s repertoire is both wide and deep, ranging from Don Giovanni to Trinity Moses in Mahagonny to the title role in Handel’s Saul. The chance to sing Golaud compelled Purves to forgo the opportunity to revisit the Handel role in this summer’s Glyndebourne revival of Barrie Kosky’s exalted production, but American audiences will have a chance to see him take on the King of Israel when the staging travels to the U.S. in the next few years.

Purves holds Handel’s music in the highest regard. “There’s something deeply autobiographical about a lot of Handel’s music. There is so much of him—vulnerable and human and flawed, yet he is able to write the most beautiful, beautiful music,” he says. “He writes the sort of roles, a bit like the Protector—they don’t come along very often, and when they do, you’ve just got to take them with both hands and grab the opportunity and enjoy yourself.” spacer 

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