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Purcell,  The Fairy Queen: New London Consort production with Philip Pickett (Conductor) Maurice Garcia Lozano (Director) Isobel Dunhill (Design) Ace McCarron (Lighting) and Karla Shacklock (Movement). Birmingham Town Hall, 17.2. 2011 (GR)

Dramatis Personae: The Career Woman Joanne Lunn (soprano)
The Femme Fatale Dana Marbach (soprano)
The Shop Girl Faye Newton (soprano)
The Actor Christopher Robson (countertenor)
The Teacher Tim Travers-Brown (countertenor)
The Idler Ed Lyon (tenor)
The Biker Joseph Cornwell (tenor)
The Priest Michael George (bass-baritone)
The Bank Clerk Simon Grant (bass-baritone)  

Henry Purcell was a fearless innovator while composers of the late 17th century era were often restricted by demands from impresarios, court and church. Perhaps this goes some way into explaining why his semi-opera The Fairy Queen is such a mishmash of self-contained masques, implanted with both allegory and symbolism. It is therefore intriguing to speculate what Purcell would make of today’s ‘Anything Goes’ attitude regarding musical theatre interpretations of his work. For instance the David Pountney ENO version of Titania, Oberon and the rest in 1995 was a mix of Shakespeare-to-music, pantomime, ballet and wacky quick-fire humour. What would be the approach of Philip Pickett and his team?   As Director of Early Music at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, you might expect Pickett would be the perfect choice to dream up a fresh approach to The Fairy Queen, whilst still honouring the comedic play of the bard. You would be wrong! Pickett ignores any reference to fairies and rustics. In his pre-concert chat with THSH staff member Paul Keene, he said he wanted to bring the setting up to date and since the existing anonymous libretto does not provide a coherent story, invent one. Pickett said he did this by scrubbing all the original labels given to the protagonists (even the impressionable Drunken Poet) designating each solo contribution to a specific character. Giving all the anonymous singers a title was a good idea. In my mind this has always been a failing of this Purcell work.

 So in the programme the individuals were described in great detail. For example, The Biker: Looks like a tough guy, but soft-centred. Once a Hell’s Angel, he’s very matey and likes company, to be part of a group. Down to earth and practical. Getting too old to be a biker now. All his mates are married with families, and selling their bikes. On the lookout for a new community.   Pickett encouraged the audience to study these characters before it all began. This was all very well, but remembering the characteristics of the nine listed in the Dramatis Personae above, and then absorb the drama and music after the lights had gone down, was another matter. Consequently I spent much of the first half attempting to identify who was who and to follow this new plot from Pickett’s team. I failed miserably, although I’m sure I would benefit from a repeat performance. A preview would have helped, but as far as I could tell, all of Purcell’s notes were there, but not necessarily in the right order. Perhaps Pickett empathised with the journalistic adage ‘Never let the facts get in the way of a good story’. But was it a ripping yarn?

Pickett had divided his concoction nine scenes (modern masques?). The first was Assembly. Fifteen instrumental members of the New London Consort were squeezed onto one side of the Birmingham Town Hall stage. This extreme intimacy did not affect their playing and gave the impression of a close bond between themselves and the rest of the cast. With only two violins (there are eight on the quality Sixteen recording) one viola and one cello, I thought their opening First/Second Musick sounded a bit thin, but in the Overture the addition of the trumpets produced an heroic French sound. Fourteen characters took to the bare stage (nine singers plus five circus artists) to commence a life-changing journey. They brought their suitcases with them – the only props employed during the evening. It’s not the first time hand baggage has been an effective aid to the plot (Rossini’s L’occasione fa il ladro became Love’s Luggage Lost with Opera North) but on this occasion it fitted the words of the sharp-suited Career Girl and the hard-pressed Bank Clerk in Come, let us leave the town. Indeed the luggage formed an integral part of Mauricio Garcia Lozano’s production, being moved around from time to time in various configurations, but always in view; it suggested the stage was a waiting room. But early on this collection of travellers seemed to be going nowhere.

 In fact their destination was the second scene, Arcadia, the mythic site of natural harmony. They had arrived there rather early in the proceedings, celebrating with Come all ye Songsters from Biker. I thought Joseph Cornwell failed to fully engage with the florid style of the music. It was left to the bird-like sopranino recorders of Louise Strickland and Heather Moger to provide the main suggestion of a Utopian landscape, aided by the carefree antics of a juggler. The subsequent numbers with references to ‘warbling’ and ‘on the Green’ were in keeping with the Arcadian situation – Pickett’s ideas were gaining credence. And yet certain details of his libretto of this section puzzled me: why retain the ‘Quire’ spelling whilst making a point of changing ‘Fairy Queen’ to ‘Joys serene’?   So far Purcell’s rude interruption onto the pastoral scene by a drunk had been omitted.

This dialogue between a blindfolded poet and a series of fairies now became the focus of the third scene, The Drunken Priest. Pickett had written out the poet although references to ‘Sonnet’ and ‘wear the bays’ remained. With no need to distinguish between Titania’s little helpers and the human beings, Pickett had substituted ‘toss-pot’ for ‘mortal’ to describe him. Modern enough for you! The briefly enacted game of Blind Man’s Buff was mildly amusing; I thought the movement here was just one example of the excellent arrangements throughout the show, well done Karla Shacklock! Michael George’s diction as the priest was as clear as always, although he was not as convincing in character as he had been as Aeneas in 2009 (also with Pickett and the New London Consort).

The Idle Lover
was next. If Love’s a Sweet Passion was sung by Idler. But why was one of Purcell’s most soothing of soprano melodies given to a tenor? The tune taken up in the repeat by the choir produced some delightful harmonies. Several of the orchestral interludes were supplemented with contributions from the five circus artists. Acrobats Lauren Hendry and Kaveh Rahnama accompanied the orchestral number originally entitled Symphony while the Swans come forward. The synopsis said ‘they are moved to rekindle their old act (and possibly their torrid relationship)’. Their physical contact was intense and certainly suited the energetic third movement, but it did little for me.   The four allegorical numbers had a scene to themselves: Night was divided into their original headings. Night from Joanne Lunn was peaceful; Mystery from Dana Marbach failed to ask any questions; Secresie from Christopher Robson perhaps reminded the audience that ‘One charming night gives more delight than a hundred lucky days’; Sleep from George brought a mesmerising hush to the auditorium as the lights dimmed to close the first half in silence. But I missed Puck and the flower juice!

Still in Arcadia it was time for A New Dawn & Ritual Sun Worship a ‘masquing revel’ replacing the birthday of King Oberon. As Pickett had predicted, Let the Fifes and the Clarions did produce the sound of Lully. I liked the staging sequence for the announcement of Phoebus. Firstly, one of the circus performers engaged in semaphore to herald his arrival. Then since it was party time the cases were arranged in a circle and the Bank Clerk was chosen to represent the personification of the sun. Finally the others duly dressed him in a luminous yellow tank top. The four seasons were hailed: Marbach played a reluctant Spring, Tim Travers-Brown a balmy Summer, Ed Lyon a bountiful Autumn and George a chilling Winter.

How The Bank Clerk and the Shop Girl fared in Arcadia followed. The answer was not very well; Faye Newton was a pleasant enough Shop Girl persistently refusing the Bank Clerk’s advances with some convincing No, No, No kisses at all. The fickleness of men was the experience of the Femme Fatale. This uneasy equilibrium between the sexes was more graphically expressed by the juggling of a large strutted cube by Boldo Janchivdorj. Because the cast are immersed in an ideal world, harmony was ultimately achieved by both the balancing of the cube by the Mongolian circus artist and by the excellent chorus in A Thousand Thousand Ways.

Lyon produced his best contribution of the evening in Thus the gloomy world that started The Triumph of Love; he shone, making it bright in every way, assisted by the sprightly trumpet obbligato of Simon Munday (I believe). Lyon had an evenness of tone throughout, an expressive B section, excellent coloratura and a Purcellian sound. Having guided the group back onto a Divine path, the Career Girl celebrated with Thrice happy Lovers. The couples paired off, I made it five including one initially reluctant gay twosome. Pickett had again changed the order of things, but it made a certain sense. This was a strong contribution from Lunn with her easy-listening voice and manner. Hymen was summoned and everyone lined up for the wedding photo-shoot. No longer drunk or stammer-ridden, George fulfilled his official duties admirably. For those still trying to follow this re-convoluted plot, the most well known number The Plaint had not been forgotten.

The high standard of this eighth scene got even higher. With the industrious David Roblou on harpsichord and sonorous Cecilia Bernadine on violin (not oboe), Lunn created a palpable tension in the Birmingham Town Hall. She poured everything into her lament over a lost love; it explained her career move. There were no tears in my eyes, but definitely a lump in the throat – the peak moment of the performance.   As everyone, singers and circus people alike, realised that love was all around if you had faith, it was time for The Departure. With hugs all round, cases were gathered together for the last time and the cast having shed their emotional baggage moved on, bound for their various destinations. Last to go was Janchivdorj, who gave a parting peck to Pickett. The audience seemed equally grateful.   What was the final verdict? At halftime I was a bit weary of the whole show and had severe doubts. But the second part was very enjoyable and I began to see why Pickett had done it his way. All in all the cases concept of director Lozano worked. This economical production of a moral tale for the 21st century is worthy of revival before too long. Well done to Pickett and company.

Geoff Read


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