The Fairy Queen is one of Henry Purcell's most popular operas. Full of memorable orchestral music and arias, this work, based on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, is very accessible and a real pleasure to listen to again and again. The opera's music has a wide variety of orchestrations, showing Purcell's talent in many registers. This DVD, recorded in 1995, features the English National Opera's production of this work, timed to celebrate the tercentenary of the composer's death, in a fine presentation with excellent singers and dancers.
This is one of those faux-modern productions, with the players wearing costumes ranging from old-fashioned to modern, from lace to leather, in various states of dress and undress, with the obligatory modern choreography, sometimes cryptic, sometimes ridiculous. Apparently, this performance incited the ire of some critics when it was given in London. The daring costumes, cross-dressing, sexual ambiguity, camp and innovative staging are not to the taste of all, far from it. But Purcell's music, like Shakespeare's play, is ludic and brash, so the choices made in the staging cannot be truly criticized for going in that direction. It should be noted that that use of dancers goes beyond what is usual for such a production, and the choreography is indeed interesting.
The staging is not without its humour, as when the Drunken Poet enters through the audience, and climbs oven an entire row of spectators, and harasses the conductor. One particularly attractive scene, both visually and musically, is the aria, If love's a sweet passion, featuring several singers and dancers, allowing some of the minor characters a chance to show their talent. This is one scene where the choreography is both tasteful and inspiring, fitting well with the melancholy tone of the music. One can clearly see that this is a company production; one where the lead roles have their place, but the supporting players have an overall quality that gives them a firm foundation.
All of the singers are good if not better; soprano Yvonne Kenny is an excellent Titania, with a fine voice and good stage presence, although she tends to lay the vibrato on a bit heavily. Thomas Randle is an admirable Oberon, and he seems very comfortable in this role. The chorus is also first-rate, and they are often present in this work. Some of the minor characters, such as Buggen and the Drunken Poet, also have very good voices, giving the entire performance a good overall tone. And one should not forget Simon Rice as an unforgettable Puck, bouncing around the stage endlessly, the perfect foil to Oberon.
The video production is excellent - there is a wide variety of camera angles, and the director focuses well on the different characters, without jumping around too much. However, the often sombre lighting works well in close-ups but not so well in wide shots; this lighting was obviously fine for live performances, yet it is a bit weak for the television.
The sound recording is quite good, with a fine impression of presence and space. Even the quietest instruments, such as the lute, are heard in good balance with the voices. Yet, at times, depending on the singers, it can be difficult to make out the words. Since there are no English sub-titles on this DVD, the lack of a libretto is a bit of a shame.
This is a very good DVD of the English National Opera's 1995
production of The Fairy Queen. The performance is very good, and the
production is noteworthy. In spite of the lighting, which can be a bit
dim, this is a fine disc. Heartily recommended for lovers of baroque
opera and, of course, Purcell.