Classical Music Home

Welcome to Naxos Records

Keyword Search
 Classical Music Home > Naxos Album Reviews

Album Reviews

See latest reviews of other albums...

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...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.

Karl Lozier
Positive Feedback Online, November 2010

The Fairy Queen is a huge production of Purcell’s unique semi-opera that features singing and dialog that was first performed in 1692. Hey, it might easily pass as a contemporary composition. Not being the least bit familiar with it, I was actually almost shocked by it. Extremely difficult if not impossible to describe in fewer than a thousand words, I am not going to try. If you have even a slight amount of subtle humor you will be smiling and shaking your head in amazement at what happens in the first minutes. The opening offers exceptionally good audio quality of a thoroughly contemporary orchestra energetically playing music written more than three hundred years ago. Then, bam, with a loud and sudden shift to an upscale large room of a couple of hundred years ago with dad and daughter arguing about her not wanting to marry dad’s choice and so on, all with glorious costuming. After that group leaves the room, six janitors from a large scale contemporary cleaning service arrive together. They start cleaning and pick up copies of the script and go on from there. Scene changes are swift, well costumed and vary from subtle to outrageous types of humor and ballet passages with outstanding performances of beautiful music for approximately three hours. My highest recommendation is easily awarded though some may not wish to indulge in frequent listening sessions but everyone will play the opening fifteen to twenty minutes to every music lover that comes over for a listening session. The video section of this superb Blu-ray recording is a must use for maximum enjoyment. Veteran PFO music reviewer, Bob Neil, explained to me that conductor William Christie probably had a great deal to do with the attractive uniqueness of this production to appeal to contemporary audiences-and then some. The following quotation in the liner notes, written by director Jonathan Kent, indicates that he may also be “guilty”. “The evening cannot simply be a parade of Purcell’s glorious music, and we are unabashed about attempting to remain true to the spirit of the work, while tampering with the letter”.

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.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, September 2010

Returning to something close the original 1692 staging, Glyndebourne Festival Opera scored a major triumph in their 2009 production directed by Jonathan Kent. Using a much cut-down version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Nights Dream would not have been so strange to audiences in the 17th century, adaptations being part of theatrical life. Over the years there have been many efforts to stage the semi-opera, some simply performing the music, but none in recent times have taken the gamble of returning to its original quasi-Shakespearean context where singing does not form part of the play. Maybe the fact that in this format The Fairy Queen lasts close by three and a half hours has been the final dissuading factor. Kent has not gone the whole way, but has opted for the cliche of costumes from various periods, the ‘rude mechanicals’ appearing in modern blue factory overalls. So, at no expense spared, casts of actors and of singers are involved, the surprise, for those who just know the music, coming in the fact that not until late in the ‘opera’ does Purcell contribute much of vocal importance. The very first performances almost made the theatre bankrupt, but Glyndebourne have included much of that lavish spectacle, people descending below the stage or dropping in from on high to create the special effects. Kent has visually divided the fairy population from the mortals by giving them wings, a devise that has causes problems with in the way in the confines of the Glyndebourne stage. So choreographer, Kim Brandstrup, has settled for modern and rather abstract slow movements that are not be quite in character. Of the actors Joseph Millson is a fine upstanding Oberon who is not going to stand for the disobedient Titania of Sally Dexter. Maybe it is microphone placement, but the actors do over-project their voices. Of the thirteen solo singers Carolyn Sampson’s Night, Lucy Crowe’s Juno and Ed Lyon as Adam are outstanding, though surrounded by so much modernity it seems strange to have a period instrument orchestra conducted by William Christie. They offer the very pungent and distinctive sound that seems to be increasingly watered down in other period ensembles, and is most impressive in the instrumental passages. I have viewed the Blue-ray version on one disc where definition and colours are admirable, the video direction, by Francoise Roussillon, spending much time set back for our enjoyment of the full stage action. It also comes on two standard DVD’s OA1031D. There are translated subtitles available in French, German and Spanish.

Kevin Filipski
Times Square, July 2010

The Fairy Queen (Opus Arte Blu-ray), British baroque composer Henry Purcell’s musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, makes its hi-def Blu-ray debut in an often exhilarating but often exasperating production from Glyndebourne, England—and which traveled to the Brooklyn Academy of Music this past season (extras: interviews with director Jonathan Kent and conductor William Christie)

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group