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John Terauds
Toronto Star, December 2010

TOP 5 OPERA DVDS OF 2010 – No. 2

Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen got its rollicking masque-like due at Glyndebourne in 2009, with a period-busting setting, excellent actors and singers, gorgeous choreography and impeccable musical leadership by William Christie.



James Reel
Fanfare, November 2010

PURCELL, H.: Fairy Queen (The) (Glyndebourne, 2009) (NTSC) OA1031D
PURCELL, H.: Fairy Queen (The) (Glyndebourne, 2009) (Blu-ray, HD) OABD7065D

..the costume choices...serve to separate the upper middle class (the lovers and their families, in Restoration garb) from the lower-class “mechanicals” (dressed as modern-day janitors), and further to distinguish those mortals from the fairies (denizens of the leisure class, dressed for an elegant contemporary dinner party). This is not arbitrary at all, and is perfectly acceptable in the context of modern staging. I seriously doubt that the costuming at early performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was much more coherent...the “mechanicals” are certainly dull, but the lovers are at least competent, though not up to the standards set by the actors playing Oberon and Titania.

As for the high-definition video element, as most of the action takes place at night, the stage is, for the most part, awash in dark shades with only a bit of red or white or maybe bottle green popping out from time to time. The benefit of Blu-ray is that none of this becomes murky; individual stage images retain good definition. I wouldn’t buy a Blu-ray player specificially to view this video, but the more advanced technology does provide valuable clarity...whatever you think of the acting, I suspect that many viewers would watch the full production only once, and thereafter concentrate on the masque highlights, and we both agree that the musical component of this production maintains a high level.



John W Barker
American Record Guide, November 2010

PURCELL, H.: Fairy Queen (The) (Glyndebourne, 2009) (NTSC) OA1031D
PURCELL, H.: Fairy Queen (The) (Glyndebourne, 2009) (Blu-ray, HD) OABD7065D

Purcell’s “semi-operas” belong to a form that flourished briefly in England at the end of the 17th Century and that is presumed to be completely impractical for today’s stage. Plays— sometimes of older vintage, sometimes new confections—were worked out so that “masques” (episodes of song and dance) could be interpolated. These masques pretty consistently ignored the characters and plots of the plays themselves, and were meant as divertissements, usually with spectacular scenic effects. Purcell was a prodigiously productive composer of songs and instrumental music for the London stage, and supplied masques for some six plays, three or four of them in collaboration with John Dryden. By far the most elaborate was a set of five masques, one per act, for the dreadful hash made of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream either by Elkanah Settle or Thomas Betterton under the title, The Fairy Queen.

Purcell’s kaleidoscopic score for that production is his longest single work, and it is simply bursting with wonderful bits and pieces. It has been given many audio recordings over the years, all of them just giving the 50-some-odd numbers of the five masques themselves and ignoring the Shakespearean rewrite as meaningless today.

Eager for new novelties, however, musico-theatrical entrepreneurs have been descending on Purcell’s “semi-operas”, determined to put them back on the stage.

Glyndebourne’s director Jonathan Kent has bravely decided to revisit the original concept of the “semi-opera” on its own terms, as spoken acting with musical episodes, in this production first presented in June 2009. Swimming upstream against received opinion, Kent has gone back to the theatrical text of 1692, declaring that its quaint dilution of The Bard’s original is a reasonable partner to Purcell’s music. True, he does cheat a bit by restoring some sections of Shakespeare’s text.

Thumbing his nose symbolically at the Pountney misconception, Kent restores the balanced interaction of three dramatic threads: the quarrel of Oberon and Titania, the amorous misadventures of the two pairs of mortal lovers, and the antics of the Mechanicals (their “play” and all). The acting cast of 16 players is splendid, led by the brooding Joseph Millson and the ravishing Sally Dexter as Oberon and Titania. Among the others, Desmond Barrit, an absolutely delightful Bottom, is one of two actors who gets to cross the cast lines and to sing—the assimilated material of the Drunken Poet.

It seems that the complete Purcell score is used, with some reorganization and touching-up, but handled knowingly by Christie. Beside the Glyndebourne chorus, some 14 fine solo singers are involved, whose assignments are not always clearly noted. And, as you might expect, the period orchestra is led with wonderful taste and spirit.

Actors and singers are mingled with dancers in Kim Brandstrup’s choreography. Aside from a somewhat tasteless episode of mass bunny-rabbit copulation, the choreography and dancing is graceful and integrated into the drama. The new Glyndebourne Theater has developed some impressive stage machinery, allowing spectacular effects comparable to what Restoration audiences expected, and nicely abetted by Mark Henderson’s lighting.

My only reservation is the decor. Kent begins things in the 1690s, but quickly moves into a generally contemporary setting with present-day costumes. There are visual clashes with the words and music. (Relentlessly winged Fairies prancing about in business suits or cocktail gowns?) Kent has eliminated entirely the wedding-show chinoiserie of the 1692 production, and the segment of the Chinese Man and Chinese Woman are turned into the exchanges of Adam and Eve, barely clothed, and soon turned into properly gotten-up contemporary hipsters.

But after a while the anachronisms do become just part of the fun. An example is the truly comic slapstick courtship of travesty tenor Robert Burt (who is also a very funny Flute among the actors) by bass Foster Williams. The latter also gets to be the wedding god Hymen, garbed in clerical collar as the clergyman officiating at the final double wedding (not triple, for poor Hippolyta is eliminated here, too). Particularly fetching are the costumes for the four seasons in the birthday masque for Oberon.

I greatly enjoyed this production, which reflects both imagination and integrity. Here is a beautiful and entertaining “take” on Shakespeare by the English theater a century after his time. It gives the lie to the received wisdom that Purcell’s musically glorious “semi-operas” cannot be recreated on today’s stages.

There are two worthwhile “extras”, where Kent and Christie discuss how they prepared this production.




Gramophone, October 2010

The Fairy Queen is often referred to snootily as a “semi-opera” because the entertainment staged at Dorset Garden in 1692 was a mix of Purcell’s musical numbers and a bowdlerised adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In fact Purcell’s audience regarded the mix of spoken drama and musical fantasy more simply as “dramatick opera”, and thought nothing odd about rehashing Shakespeare. The subtlety and richness of Shakespeare’s original text was diluted for the occasion in 1692 but that does not mean that the result is not stage-worthy in its own right. Unfortunately, most staged productions of The Fairy Queen has avoided putting Purcell’s music back into its proper quasi-Shakesperean dramatic context. While nobody in their right mind would think it preferable to stage The Magic Flute without any dialogue, ENO’s 1995 production of The Fairy Queen worked hard and unevenly to make Purcell’s music stand alone in isolation from the relevant moments in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Simply using the charm and quality of the music as a springboard for contrived stage action tell less than half the story.

The idea of reconciling the score of The Fairy Queen and its original play has for too long seemed too much like hard work for those who could not be bothered to make a serious attempt. So kudos to director Jonathan Kent and the entire production team of Glyndebourne’s fabulous 2009 reincarnation of the music and play reunited.

The reward of such courage and inquisitiveness is lovely to watch. William Christie’s direction has its cons as well as its pros; some songs (“If love’ a sweet passion”) are affected by bulgy exaggerations, tiny unnecessary tricks are employed by the OAE and chorus, and the copious use of battering percussion is irritating to those who prefer organic fare to artificial additives.

However, the production is a treat to watch: Kent has imaginatively realised the connections between the masques and the spoken drama, mixing coherently the three worlds of late-17th-century aristocratic England (Thebes), the modern day (the mechanicals preparing Pyramus and Thisbe), and the Fairy kingdom at night. The stage action is packed with good humour, affection and excellent use of colours and contrasts (although you might want to cover your children’s eyes at the rather saucy choreography for giant pink rabbits at the end of Act 3). The masque of the four seasons in Act 4 is a veritable feast on the eye. Much of the credit for the charm of this production must go to the actors, especially the four confused lost lovers, the quarrelling Oberon and Titania, and, of course, Desmond Barrit’s Welsh Bottom. Of the principal singers, Lucy Crowe has stage magnetism and a terrific voice, but “Hark! the echoing air” suggests that her steely timbre is slightly less at home in 17th-century music than in Handel. Ed Lyon has the lion’s share of tenor solos; he makes heavy weather of some things but his higher-lying passages are excellent. Andrew Foster-Williams sings with gusto and appears comfortable as an extraordinary variety of characters. Carolyn Sampson steals the show in the Plaint, as the mood instantly switches from prior jollity to intense pathos; she sings “I shall never see him more” with devastating pathos but also impeccable style (plaudits also to Alison Bury’s tender violin obbligato). There are a few CD versions that I’d rather listen to for the music alone, but this DVD conveys an exceptionally spectacular event in the theatre. For a visual and dramatic feast, this reunification of play and music for The Fairy Queen is an absolute triumph.



gtra1n
The Big City, August 2010

Behind The Fairy Queen, and much of the best Purcell heard today, is the conductor William Christie, who has been a champion and leader staging and recording great Baroque operas in a style that is both rigorously researched and musically satisfying. The Fairy Queen is, originally, something called a semi-opera, but this Glyndebourne production, directed by Jonathan Kent, designed by Paul Brown and choreographed by Kim Brandstrup, turns the composers adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream into a fully integrated drama. Bottom and his fellow mortals are the cleaning crew in a mansion, the Fairies it’s secret inhabitants, contemporary dress so prevalent that figures who show up on stage in older style costumes are deliberately stripped. Of all the possible ways to stage any opera, contemporary dress is one of the most effective and, strangely, controversial. If a story is good enough to be seen and heard through the centuries, that it can survive contemporary stagings, and, though audiences grumble when Mozart, Verdi and Wagner are made more familiar to them (grumble out of some atavistic attachment to an imagined tradition), Early Music productions commonly present works in contemporary dress with witty, self-conscious gestures towards the artificiality of the Baroque tradition (four hundred years ago, audiences understood that the wires meant the characters were not actually flying, as they do today, and there’s delight in that). The music and singing, with Joseph Millson as Oberon, Sally Dexter as Titania, Jotham Anna as Puck and Desmond Barrit as Bottom, is as fine as one would expect from Christie, which means it’s gorgeous, clear, musical, direct and natural, and the production is beautiful, with skillful transformations between our world and that of the Fairies and a sophisticated, artful balance of contemporary ideas and specific gestures to how audiences in 1692 enjoyed the work. It’s not uncommon to see a semi-staged performance of The Fairy Queen, and this DVD represents as good a staged one as I have seen.



© Robert Anderson
Music & Vision, July 2010

…tender expression and all requisite vim.’

As a financial speculation, this semi-opera was hardly more successful than the current British economy. Every scenic device that the Dorset Gardens could produce was called into play. There were grottoes, arbours adorned with all varieties of flower, and delightful walks. Act 3 required a great wood with river in the middle, over which two dragons provided a bridge, while swans were seen floating in the distance. The swans then turned themselves into dancing fairies until frightened away by four savages. A garden of fountains, fed by mighty cascades from remote hills, was foreground for the rising sun in Act 4. Finally Juno appeared in a chariot drawn by peacocks and the scene changed to a Chinese garden. It must be said that Glyndebourne has made considerable efforts to conjure Dorset Gardens.

Where is Shakespeare in the midst of all this? The Fairy Queen was notionally based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Glyndebourne has paid him the compliment of using not only his ideas but also a number of his lines. Purcell’s cast is enormous, and Glyndebourne has coped by some doubling up. Andrew Foster-Williams scores the highest total, managing to be Sleep (my favourite character), Coridon, Winter, and Hymen. The opening scene is bewigged in a manner Purcell might have recognised, and there indeed Shakespeare gets a decent innings.

Titania herself first appears in company with the changeling boy, supposedly stolen from an Indian court. As in Shakespeare, he is the basis of her mortal quarrel with Oberon.

Purcell’s drunken poet has been taken over by Bottom (Desmond Barrit). This allows all the mechanicals, in comfortable trades union costume, to become equally tipsy until besieged by a riot of fairies determined to pinch their protagonist black and blue, thus vaguely anticipating Verdi’s treatment of Falstaff.

Every Act but the first ends with the performance of a masque of no particular relevance to the action. The most impressive is the one in Act 2, during which the main characters are Night, Mystery, Secrecy, and Sleep. A wandering woman holds a pillow behind her head, while one of the male lovers is alternately lulled towards slumber and then rudely transported to another section of the stage. The main purpose of the masque is that Titania should be unaware she is to be magically predisposed to adore the first thing she sees on waking. Sleep has a wonderfully somnolent summons, more effective than any chemical tablet so far known to me.

The Act 4 ‘symphony’ launches with a timpani tattoo, as original a stroke as anything in the work.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under William Christie has a glorious time with Purcell’s score, playing with tender expression and all requisite vim. There are dances in abundance, echoes into the remote distance, brilliant trumpet pieces, dashing passages for the strings, and a final Chaconne as grand as any in Purcell’s output. Christie is alternately at the harpsichord and conducting with battonless precision.

Scenically, the most challenging effect Glyndebourne had to realise was the appearance of Phoebus Apollo in the mid-sky as risen sun. The god’s face was suitably gilded, and he cut a splendid figure in his magnificent chariot. Myths normally give him four horses for his daily journey, but in the Sussex opera house he had to make do with only one. Purcell’s demands in the work are exorbitant; they were met for the most part with constant on-stage activity by a cast splendidly responsive to the bold ideas of the director, Jonathan Kent.






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6:41:18 PM, 18 December 2014
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