The Fairy Queen – Semi-opera in a Prologue and five Acts to an anonymous adaptation of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream [sung in English]
Anna Dennis, Mhairi Lawson, Rowan Pierce & Carolyn Sampson (sopranos), Jeremy Budd, Charles Daniels & James Way (high tenors & tenors [sic]), Roderick Williams (baritone) & Ashley Riches (bass-baritone)
Recorded 8-11 & 18 January 2019 at St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London
Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers
Reviewed: August 2020
CD No: SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD615 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 20 minutes
Hard on the heels of their release of King Arthur, Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort now bring out Purcell’s subsequent semi-opera The Fairy Queen (1692). Although recorded at the same time, and using virtually the same line up of singers, this account of Purcell’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (rather than Spenser’s eponymous poetical epic) is not quite so successful.
Partly that is due to the odd hybrid nature of the ‘semi-opera’ format in which the sung roles are characters interpolated into the underlying drama, rather than developing those of the play, so that their musical numbers run parallel to the spoken text rather than setting or expanding it; indeed their words were specially written for the purpose, instead of drawing upon Shakespeare. Given that the latter’s text is entirely omitted on this recording the musical items we are left with are essentially unconnected, constituting a series of apparently random songs and choruses, more in the nature of incidental music, or self-contained masques. Furthermore, Purcell’s inspiration here is not on the same engaging level as that of King Arthur, many of whose movements are memorable and instantly recognisable. A good chunk of Act Two, for instance, from ‘I am come to lock all fast’ to the end is rather unvaried in texture and mood, comprising a generally wan series of songs in the minor key.
Admittedly that is the fault of the score, not the performers. But McCreesh attempts to draw little contrast between them, or to instil greater vitality or character in their articulation. True, they are sung with a pleasing directness and lack of affectation, letting the words speak for themselves, which stands entirely to the credit of all the performers concerned, but they sound more like a recital of song rather than carrying through any drama, however tenuous any narrative thread is at this point.
Carping about that aspect aside, this is still overall more than simply a decent account of the musical items which Purcell set. Indeed there are enticing manifestations of dramatic characterisation elsewhere, not least on Ashley Riches’s part as the Drunk Poet, and later on as Sleep. Jeremy Budd, Charles Daniels and James Way all acquit themselves well as “high tenors” – rather in the fashion of French Baroque vocalism –complementing the generally lilting and poised performance by the instrumentalists of the Gabrieli Players. It is not clear if the slight wobble and rustic-sounding vowels of Way’s interpretation of ‘Come all ye songsters’ is deliberate or an oversight; but the overtly provincial accent of Daniels and Riches’s comic repartee as Coridon and Mopsa in Act Three clearly is intentional.
The female singers are all equally distinguished, although they are less musically varied amongst themselves – but this is partly attributable to the less incisively characterised nature of Purcell’s music for them. Carolyn Sampson is unfailingly striking, not least in capturing the nocturnal stillness of ‘See even Night’ with a (paradoxical) radiance of voice. Anna Dennis deserves a mention for her noble expression of suffering in ‘If love’s a sweet passion’, and Mhairi Lawson has some fun with ‘When I have often heard’.
As a chorus, the Gabrieli Consort exhibit impressive versatility, whether in the slow and sombre section which follows Dennis’s air mentioned above, like a sarabande, or the Handelian breadth and grandeur of ‘Hail! Great parent of us all’ in Act Four. It is a pity that the intonation of the trumpets is a little insecure and weak there, and elsewhere. Otherwise the chorus and instrumental ensemble display unanimity of purpose under McCreesh’s detailed direction using his and Christopher Suckling’s new edition of the work.
Simply as an interpretation of Purcell’s score, this is a fine achievement. The book-like presentation with informative notes and the English text are exemplary. But it is frustrating that a more dramatically coherent reading is found only intermittently here, as McCreesh and his crack forces are clearly capable of it. Like the half-donkey half-man figure of the transformed Bottom in Shakespeare’s original, it is not quite one thing or the other.