Purcell: The Fairy Queen

Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment/Christie

Royal Albert Hall, 24 July 2009 4.5 stars

William ChristieGlyndebourne Festival Opera's annual pilgrimage to the Proms was a double celebration this year; their own 75th anniversary coupled with the 350th anniversary of the birth of Henry Purcell, arguably the United Kingdom's most famous composer. And what a great way to celebrate with a production of The Fairy Queen sung from a new edition prepared for The Purcell Society by Bruce Wood and Andrew Pinnock that not only restores the whole theatrical entertainment, but also the low Purcellian pitch of A=405. Considering its popularity, it seems amazing that The Fairy Queen could have escaped such a fundamental re-evaluation for over a century but this fresh reading, based on the surviving theatre score that Purcell himself supervised, is musicology at its very best; a perfect marriage between intellectual detective work and William Christie's inspired musical direction.

Purcell devised this rather lavish work to accompany an adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and the resulting 'opera' is really a series of masques presented to Shakespeare's characters at their fairy court. Since the music is more-or-less self-contained one could easily imagine how, historically, rehearsals may have been largely separate, the actors working apart from the musicians until near the end of the production period. Luckily, there was no hint of them-and-us in this production as equally impressive casts of singers and actors worked together with ease, each enjoying the others’ efforts as they remained on stage for almost the whole evening. And in this restored state the production did make for a rather generous evening; almost two hours before the interval then over and hour and a half afterwards. I can think of no better compliment to William Christie and his team than to say that time, quite literally, flew. It was nearly 9pm when the second half started and almost no one in the audience seemed to notice. Now that's good theatre.

The production is pleasingly witty, and although much pared down for the Royal Albert Hall it retained a strong sense of integration with the music. What was most noticeable in the huge space was that quieter scenes were far more successful than louder ones. That may sound surprising but it was apparent with the orchestra too; in an Air, gorgeously subtle pizzicato violins seemed to shrink the space and draw the audience closer. The was also the case for the actors, quick-witted dialogue seemed very close indeed but when the 'troupe of actors' (Bottom, Quince etc...) had their rowdier scenes one was suddenly aware of how confused the voices could become, so distant in all that space.

Singing, on the other hand, thrived in the hall. As one would expect from such a stellar cast of young singers the tone was prevailingly bright and nimble lead by more established artists such as Carolyn Sampson, Lucy Crowe, Andrew Foster-Williams and Ed Lyon. All four excelled in their numbers with a particularly moving lament from Sampson and some deft ornamentation by Ed Lyon. How nice it was to hear One Charming Night sung by a tenor (a happy by-product of the lower pitch) as Lyon bought new colours and clarity to this familiar tune which is normally subdued when a countertenor switches to chest voice. William Christie is particularly encouraging towards younger singers and it was a tenor, Sean Clayton, from his ensemble Les Jardin des voix, who particularly stood out alongside the beautiful silvery tone of young soprano Miriam Allan and impressive stage presence of Claire Debono.

Acting-wise, the evening was stolen by that genius of comic-timing Desmond Barrit, and also the commanding voice of Sally Dexter's Titania who had a habit of starting her dialogue on a note stolen from the preceding musical cadence. Very neat indeed. Dance was also an impressively integral part of the evening, but it occasionally polluted the drama with too many footfalls on a hollow stage. Why is this always such an issue with dance? I was surprised that arrangements couldn’t have been made to deaden the stage more as the noise made certain scenes sound inelegant, when visually they were really quite the opposite.

This was a really great Proms event and left many wishing they could have the opportunity of enjoying the whole production at Glyndebourne. William Christie is one of the finest entrepreneurs of this music and his talented cast alongside the ever-dazzling Orchestra of the age of Enlightenment made sure that this was a truly magical event.

Prom 7 was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and will be available as audio on demand for the following week.

By Ed Breen

Photo: William Christie

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