The Imperfect Pearl

Elizabeth Davis discovers the music of a little-known Baroque composer

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Imperfect PearlIn a monastery in Bolivia, in 1972, an extraordinary musical discovery was made. A wooden box was found to contain manuscript after manuscript of music by one of the most enigmatic and – until this point – elusive of Baroque composers: Domenico Zipoli.

The box was marked ‘toilet paper’.

A new show, devised by pianist Mark Latimer, directed by Emma Rivlin and starring countertenor William Towers, sets out to restore Zipoli’s reputation – and does so with scarce a bum note (sorry).

Zipoli was born in Prato, Italy in 1688, he was a pupil of Alessandro Scarlatti and his music began to get attention thanks to the support of a wealthy patroness. Some years later and for reasons that aren’t documented – although Latimer’s version of events suggests an unrequited passion for his patron – Zipoli became a Jesuit and travelled to South America.

And this is where the show begins: William Towers as Zipoli shelters next to wooden crates while we hear waves crashing against his ship. He begins to hum, then mimes playing a piece on the piano. And suddenly we hear the piece – Zipoli’s Prelude from the Suite in B minor – played by Mark Latimer.

The production, which I saw on the first date of its UK tour at St George's, Bristol, is called The Imperfect Pearl (Perola Barroca) and is part drama, part concert. There are four musicians on one side of the stage who perform music in between scenes from Zipoli’s life, acted out by Towers and soprano Eloise Irving, on the other side of the stage. Although there are some mis-steps – the opening sequence is too long and there’s a clumsy love scene – this is a captivating story with a charming character at its centre. And luckily Zipoli’s music is not half bad either.

Each piece was a revelation to me – from the lively dances in his Sonata in A to the atmospheric Missa San Ignacio. And Zipoli is fortunate to have such eloquent performers and enthusiastic advocates in the form of violinists Miles Golding, Julia Barker and cellist Sophie Gledhill.

But the production is carried by William Towers who does a sterling job of creating a believable Zipoli: when he succeeds in getting a patron he punches the air, when he describes the strange, new landscape of Paraguay you can sense his wonder.

Eloise Irving, as Zipoli’s patron, has a light, delicate voice which suits Zipoli’s music and complements Towers’s countertenor.

As the title might seem to acknowledge, the show is not perfect – it tries to walk the tightrope between concert and theatre, and sometimes teeters precariously between the two. And because of the show’s reliance on narration, it does feel more like a radio drama (perhaps unsurprisingly there is talk of the programme being recorded).

But The Imperfect Pearl is a winning way of getting to know Zipoli’s music and by the end – and surely this is the ultimate test – I wanted to seek out more.

'The Imperfect Pearl' will next be performed at Birmingham Conservatoire on 19 April. Future dates include performances in Herefordshire, London and Coventry. Visit the production's website for more information.

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