The Fairy Queen

The Fairy Queen – Semi-opera in a prologue and five acts to a text anonymously adapted from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Miriam Allen, Lucy Crowe, Claire Debono, Anne Devin, Helen-Jane Howells, Rachel Redmond, Carolyn Sampson, Robert Burt, Sean Clayton, Ed Lyon, Adrian Ward, Lukas Kargl, John Mackenzie, Andrew Foster-Williams & Desmond Barritt

Puck – Jotham Annan
Bottom – Desmond Barritt
Helena – Helen Bradberry
Flute – Robert Burt
Snout – Jack Chiswick
Titania – Sally Dexter
Theseus – William Gaunt
Egeus – Terrence Hardiman
Lysander – Oliver Kieran-Jones
Changeling boy – Taliesin Knight
Demetrius – Oliver Le Sueur
Quince – Peter McCleary
Oberon – Joseph Millson
Snug – Brian Pettifer
Starveling – Roger Sloman
Hermia – Susannah Wise

The Glyndebourne Chorus

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
William Christie

Semi-staging based on the 2009 production at Glyndebourne, directed by Jonathan Kent with choreography by Kim Brandstrup and designs by Paul Brown

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 21 July, 2009
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The “Glyndebourne Prom” is always an event, allowing the Sussex Opera Festival to showcase one of its usually new productions in the huge space of the Royal Albert Hall. This year the performance on offer was Jonathan Kent’s production of Purcell’s “The Fairy Queen”.

William Christie. Photograph: Simon FowlerMusically there was a wonderfully crisp performance by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment of the new Purcell Society edition of the work – one that has critically re-examines the various sources and performance editions and which now offers a variety of options. One of the reasons why the musical performance sounded so fresh was the adoption of a pitch (A=405Hz) at which Purcell’s music was probably originally heard. Glyndebourne and the OAE has re-tuned, modified and even re-made various instruments to achieve this, and the distinctly mellower soundworld that resulted was an asset. This was particularly evident in the rather earthy sound of the woodwind. Percussion effects were nicely judged, too. William Christie was conducting and providing the continuo and for the most part led an energetic performance, highly attuned to what was happening in the performance, and capturing unerringly the shifts of mood from the rustic to the plaintive. There was a fine cast of young singers for the musical numbers that intersperse the filleted version of Shakespeare’s narrative, and a fine troupe of actors for the drama.

However, the performance was somewhat compromised by the cavernous acoustic of the Hall. For those in close proximity to the stage this may not have proven such an issue, but elsewhere it certainly affected the presentation. The actors were the ones who suffered most. They were discreetly amplified but the sheer resonance of the RAH meant that clarity of the text was compromised. Whenever they spoke with any speed or fluidity at volume this resulted in much of the text being unintelligible; and when so much of the spoken text was included this rather undermined the drama. It was the quartet of lovers who were most affected. Sally Dexter’s almost operatically authoritative Titania overcame this problem with clever use of voice and measured delivery and Joseph Millson’s amusingly deadpan Oberon proved a theatrically effective foil for her. Desmond Barritt’s ebullient Bottom also managed to project into the space successfully especially in his big scenes. Robert Burt’s burly Flute and Jotham Annan’s Puck made what they could with what the text leaves of their parts. The Pyramus and Thisbe play was wittily done from a visual perspective but too much of the dialogue was smudged.

Carolyn Sampson. Photograph: Nina LargeThe singers and soloists fared better, and in some respects were more successful in getting their words across (although they did have the advantage that their texts were in the programme!). The singers rarely get involved in the action but more provide commentary on mood and situation. There was some ravishing singing by the ladies – most notably Carolyn Sampson’s meltingly beautiful account of “Ye gentle spirits of the air appear” which held the entire audience absolutely rapt.

Lucy Crowe. Photograph: Sussie AhlburgClaire Debono also contrasted her various characters well. Ed Lyon’s fluid bright tenor applied great charm to his contributions and he ornamented beautifully. He was also very committed to the production particularly in his almost unclad appearance as Adam in the Garden of Eden. Another asset was the resinous and characterful bass-baritone of Andrew Foster-Williams. However, this was very much an ensemble show and all the singers put everything into the dramatic realisation. There was some musical wit displayed in the ‘Echo’ trio and some rather bawdy humour in the appearance of some decadently libidinous lagomorphs – okay then – bonking bunnies! If the Coridon and Mopsa episode was a tad too knowing, it mattered not.

We were also treated to Kim Brandstrup’s choreography. Although this was elegant and viewable, the sound of the dancers’ footfalls was unfortunately overloud and at times drowned the orchestral playing. The music needed to be given more prominence overall; it’s a tough call – does one reproduce as much of the show as possible or tailor the show towards revealing the musical values (and Glyndebourne’s long rehearsal periods always mean these are of the highest quality)? The balance was not judged perfectly on this occasion, but the was performance full of energy, musical interest and some stunning vocalism.

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