The Fairy Queen

Purcell
The Fairy Queen

Rebecca Outram, Mhairi Lawson, Julia Gooding & Susan Hemington Jones (sopranos)
Daniel Auchincloss, Charles Daniels & Mark Le Brocq (tenors)
Peter Harvey & Jonathon Best (basses)

Gabrieli Consort & Players
Paul McCreesh

Kate Brown – Stage director


Reviewed by: Josh Meggitt

Reviewed: 17 July, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Prom 3 offered a chance to hear Purcell’s instrumental and vocal music for “The Fairy Queen” – an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” – separated from its theatrical components. Divorced from narrative, with minimal stage design, little theatricality and drab costumes, this performance was problematic.

The Gabrieli Consort & Players could barely be heard in the expanses of the Royal Albert Hall – as if a sheet of gauze was restricting clarity. The trumpeters, sitting several rows back on a blue-tiered dais augmented with neon pink lighting, seemed strangely alone, yet when their strident calls sounded it became clear that the acoustics had been considered. The arrival of the vocalists didn’t raise the bar any: the men, resembling the groom’s party at a wedding, wore bland, beige summer suits (not matching), and the women dressed in a random collection of casual/semi-formal wear straight off the high-street.

Radio 3 listeners got the better deal; in some ways one felt cheated for attending live. Before Act Five commenced we were forced to wait while a Radio 3 broadcaster finished his on-air spiel. He was applauded when he finished. When not required, the chorus sat lifelessly on stage, occasionally sipping bottled water. Action, when it fleetingly occurred, seemed awkward and the performers uncomfortable with ‘acting’. The removal of the drama caused incongruous juxtapositions in mood on stage. In the Hall, it was underwhelming.

Fortunately some performances were in a higher league. The opening Duet, sung beautifully by Julia Gooding and Peter Harvey, demonstrated that Purcell’s ‘incidental music’ is far from empty and that these performers are more than capable of inhabiting his world. The drunken poet’s stumbling arrival in the next scene introduced the farcical nature of the work: although devoid of subtlety, Jonathon Best’s slurred and stuttered delivery was charming. While all the vocalists were admirable, Charles Daniels and Julia Gooding were particularly mesmerising.

A cycle of songs in Act Four chronicling the changing seasons were performed sublimely here, the varying instrumentation and progressively deeper voices evoking the different colours of the year. Repeated vocal lines painfully reinforced the themes of love and desire integral to the work, and these dramatic moments were the more convincing. However, ‘humorous’ scenes, such as that involving Jonathon Best in drag pursued by a desperate Mark Le Brocq, were embarrassing.

Musically it was difficult to find fault – if anything Paul McCreesh seemed more involved than his players, although that could have been due to his gestures being more perceptible than the Consort & Players’ music. “The Fairy Queen” throws up refreshing pairings of situations and music: the dancing recorder lines emerging from the depths of the Hall in the Prelude to Act Two effortlessly conjuring a woodland setting, and the bizarre ‘Echo’ in which a (solitary?) trumpet is heard to reverberate, are but two examples. The ‘Dance of the Fairies’ in Act Three proffered exquisite ensemble playing, the finale deliciously resolved with a thick daub of strings.

McCreesh must have delivered some kind of pep talk: the second half opened with considerably more intensity and, from somewhere, volume. The presence of the timpani and more brass doubtless assisted. The vocalists bared their teeth, too, less hesitant in the limelight and more confident posturing about the stage. From their entrance – a grand procession involving swathes of coloured drapery – their increased engagement was palpable. A troubled evening, then, but not without highlights.

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