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A Magisterial Presence

William Christie conducts
Purcell's 'The Fairy Queen',
reviewed by ROBERT HUGILL


One of the surprises of the Purcell centenary celebrations this year is that no-one seems to have attempted even the sketchiest of recreations of an authentic staging of one his semi-operas. The semi-opera was a hybrid genre, designed to enable an essentially spoken theatre to put on a work which captured some of the elements of opera but kept the actors (who ran the theatre) in work. It was an entirely English genre, very specific to the London theatre in the late 17th century. But even after the advent of Italian opera seria in the early eighteenth century, semi-opera would continue to have a sort of half-life; the English remained so wedded to spoken theatre. Even in the early nineteenth century, Weber complained about the amount of spoken material in J R Planche's libretto for his opera Oberon which was premièred at Covent Garden.

Purcell seems to have had no qualms about the semi-opera genre and never wrote a full length through composed opera. The Fairy Queen was his final semi-opera and combines a text which is loosely adapted from Shakespeare with extensive masques. None of the important roles are sung. To our eyes (and ears) this makes for awkward drama but the seventeenth century theatre goers had no such problems. And it meant that the actors could rehearse separately from the singers, who were professionals hired in.

This means that a fully staged version of The Fairy Queen requires a large cast of singers, dancers and actors, and is rather long. As such it is ideal festival material and to their credit Glyndebourne Festival Opera have staged the work complete in a staging directed by Jonathan Kent and designed with verve by Paul Brown. The full Glyndebourne staging is scenically rich and elaborate; Kent and Brown make no attempt to re-create seventeenth century operatic moeurs but instead find modern versions of them.

It was this production that Glyndebourne Festival Opera brought to the BBC Proms in London, UK, on Tuesday 21 July 2009. It was billed as a semi-staged version of Jonathan Kent's production, directed by Francesca Gilpin. And whilst it lacked the scenic richness and imagination of the original, what we saw was certainly more than semi-staged and was a rich theatrical experience in its own right.

The play is divided up into five acts and each includes a substantial musical interlude; in Act 1 it is the scene of the drunken poet. In the subsequent acts we get a masque which has a tangential relevance to the events happening on stage, so that the work ends with a Masque of Marriage.

This means that the opening acts are quite dialogue heavy, with not so much music, but as the evening progresses music gradually takes over. Kent has made a significant change to the ordering of The Fairy Queen libretto. In the original work, the staging of 'Pyramus and Thisbe' is seen complete during rehearsals and we do not see it performed to the Duke. This means that the final two acts are mainly musical. Along with the introduction of scraps of Shakespearean dialogue, Kent has moved the 'Pyramus and Thisbe' play to its 'correct' Shakespearean position. This might seem sensible, but in fact it rather disturbs the balance of the semi-opera and the mechanicals' clowning falls uneasily between the two sublime masques.

William Gaunt was a noble Theseus, notably underused in a production which can't double Theseus with Oberon -- they both appear in the final scenes. Helen Bradbury, Susannah Wise, Oliver Kieran-Jones and Oliver Le Sueur were the lovers, all looking suitably young and attractive and managing to keep our attention in a production which inevitably focuses on other matters for much of the time. Of the actors, it was the Titania of Sally Dexter who made the biggest impression; she seemed to have the grasped the requisite largeness of gesture and strength of characterisation required to compete not only with the vastness of the Albert Hall but with the soloists, Glyndebourne Chorus and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Joseph Millson's Oberon was not quite as strong, but ran Dexter a close second.

The dialogue sections were discreetly amplified, which meant that the actors were more than adequately comprehensible in the vastness of the Albert Hall. To help matters even more, Christie and his singers seemed to have the measure of the tricky acoustic and projected Purcell's music admirably.

It is a curiosity of the genre that this music is given to singers who are minor characters at most. These singers, Lucy Crowe, Claire Debono, Carolyn Sampson, Ed Lyon and Andrew Foster-Williams wandered in and out of the proceedings, providing a stream of glorious music. At first the dramaturgy seemed rather stilted when we moved from spoken to sung and back again. But Kent and Gilpin used the chorus, the dancers and the actors to create a world which came to seem internally consistent and obvious. It was this internal consistency which was the performance's great virtue; all the arts present (speech, music, dancing, song etc) coalesced into a single whole -- something that I had not really anticipated; the genre of semi-opera is so curious that you never quite know what is going to happen. And Kent is unusual in that he trusted the form far more than others.

The soloists were on strong form. Carolyn Sampson contributed a number of fine solos, culminating in a haunting rendering of The Plaint. Lucy Crowe appeared in a variety of guises and impressed in each, as did Claire Debono. Ed Lyon had moments of slightly coarse tone, but given that he was singing a consistently high-lying tenor part in the Albert Hall, I think he can be forgiven. Andrew Foster-Williams seemed to move easily between comedy and tragedy and always amazes that so slight a frame can deliver such a deep dark voice.

To the group of five solo singers, were added members of the Glyndebourne Chorus who contributed notable solos as necessary. In addition, two of the actors provided a little cross-over. Desmond Barritt, who played Bottom, sang the role of the Drunken Poet as Kent had neatly linked this scene into that of the mechanicals. And Robert Burt who played Flute, sang the role of Mopsa in the comic Corydon and Mopsa scene (with Andrew Williams-King as Corydon).

The performance was played at a pitch of A=405Hz, which is thought to be the pitch used in London at the time. It is about three quarters of a tone below modern pitch, but sits a little below the generally used baroque pitch and above French baroque pitch. It seems to be the first time that a full scale Purcell performance in modern times has used this pitch. Such issues of pitch are important as they help us to understand the voice types that Purcell might have used. There has been much discussion in recent times about Purcell's use of high tenors and/or counter-tenor and this matter of pitch helps to bring things into focus. That said, I could not have told you that the performance was being given at a different pitch to usual.

Inevitably there were losses scenically; the arrival of Phoebus (Lukas Kargl) was nowhere near as spectacular as in the full staging. But we still got the dance of the copulating bunnies (in lieu of the hay-makers in Purcell's original). Some of Kent's and Gilpin's updating seemed a little too modish. The modern reading of the work 'gay' in summer's air was perhaps inevitable and Sean Clayton dealt very well with the campery required of him. But at the end, the final masque is meant to move to a new ideal world, represented by China with airs for a Chinese man and woman. Here, Kent and Gilpin had them as Adam and Eve (complete with apple), with Ed Lyon and Helen Jane Howells bravely stripped down to fig leaves. There was something about this which grated, and my annoyance grew with the staging of the final glorious chaconne. Instead of a formal dance, we got celebratory jigging about after the marriage of the four lovers. And what choreography there was (from Kim Brandstrup) seemed at odds with the music.

William Christie presided over things with his usual magisterial presence, seeming to conjure wonders by doing little. There were occasional moments of instability, caused no doubt by the vagaries of the Albert Hall acoustic. But there were some ravishing musical moments. The staging included all the act tunes, which were generally staged as dances, so that the orchestra was able to dazzle us repeatedly.

This was a long evening, starting at 6.30pm and finishing at 10.30pm with just one interval of twenty minutes. It was a shame that the performance could not have been organised for a weekend. I felt that the work needed a longer interval and the women trapped in the endless queue for the ladies toilets almost certainly felt they needed more time as well.

Copyright © 24 July 2009 Robert Hugill,
London UK


















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