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Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
The Fairy Queen (1692) [143.56]
Sara Macliver; Miriam Allan; Belinda Montgomery (sop); Sally-Anne Russell; Jenny Duck-Chong (mezzo); Jamie Allen; Paul McMahon; Brett Weymark (ten); Corin Bone; Simon Lobelson (bar); Stephen Bennett (bass)
Orchestra of the Antipodes/Antony Walker
rec. Eugene Goossens Hall, ABC Ultimo Centre, December 2003. DDD
ABC CLASSICS 476 2879 [70.50 + 73.06]


Purcell’s only original opera was Dido and Aeneas though he wrote more than forty works for the stage in his all too brief life. Associated with the English Church and Court some of these works are so extensive that one wonders why they are not called operas. The fact is that like ‘The Fairy Queen’ they are termed semi-operas because they contain dialogue. Ironically, in most modern performances, and on this CD, dialogue is omitted otherwise the entire length would exceed the patience of most listeners.

Tragically Purcell’s early death put paid to any developments in English opera. This left the field open to Italian opera and the figure of Handel to carry the torch. Indeed some sections of ‘The Fairy Queen’ may remind you of parts in Handel, especially the ceremonial music of Act V with its use of trumpets and drums. One is also reminded of Purcell’s Coronation Odes and other official entertainment music.

The libretto, probably by Thomas Betterton is described as being ‘After William Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’’ and very loosely speaking it is. There is no plot as such and none of Shakespeare’s characters are really used; only alluded to. There is no characterisation as such so each soloist can be given an equal share of the work. One could call it ‘A woodland Fantasy’ involving Fairies, a Chinaman and woman (!), a Poet, Corydon and Mopsa, Juno and much else.

The libretto and indeed the plot seem to have been designed exactly with Purcell’s skills and most famed achievements in mind. This allowed him to give the soloist’s music, immediately afterwards, to the chorus in delicious four-part harmony.

There are also echo effects, various popular dances including a hornpipe, mellifluous arias, plaints involving Purcell’s favoured Ground Bass, and a Chaconne. Incidentally the latter differs from a ground bass in having a repeated harmonic pattern and not just a repeated bass line. There is much else typical of the composer.

Highlights for me include some arresting orchestral work when the band of authentic instruments is given its head. Also the gorgeous ‘Music for a while’ inserted in this production for no real reason in Act 1. We can submerge ourselves in the elegant mezzo-soprano of Sally-Anne Russell with wondrous accompaniment. In Act 2 we get the fine chorus number ‘Now join your warbling Voices all’ and the delightful ‘Sing while we trip it’ sung by the light-footed Belinda Montgomery. I also enjoyed Jamie Allen’s deliberately harsh rendition of ‘When a Cruel long winter’.

This recording is an outcome of performances by Pinchgut Opera in Sydney in 2003, (following their successful production and recording of ‘Orfeo’) directed by Justin Way with set designs by Kimm Kovac and Andrew Hays. Pictures from the production can be seen at the back of the CD booklet. The recording was made directly after the live performances.

There is no shortage of competition for recordings of such a popular work. Let me tell you what this group are up against. There is ‘Les Arts Florissants’ on Harmonia Mundi, then the ‘Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra under Ton Koopman on Erato. Next, comes my own favourite, the ‘English Baroque Soloists’ under Roger Norrington on EMI Reflexe and ‘The Sixteen’ now transferred to their own ‘Coro’ label. There are quite a few others including a Decca recording directed by Britten. So how do Pinchgut Opera compare?

Generally one has to say that the singing is neither so starry nor so well characterized and often it is simply not as good technically speaking. Yet, I love the young freshness of the voices used here. They are absolutely ideal because, if nothing else, this is a young person’s opera. Mostly the ladies are totally free from excessive vibrato and the soprano’s upper registers ring out clearly. The tempos chosen by conductor Antony Walker are often on the quick side which I for one applaud. The chorus work is crisp and the diction clean with perfect intonation. Finally the instrumental work matches the timbres of the voices. The balance is normally neatly judged. Can I recommend this recording? Well I can, but it will not supplant for me the English Baroque Soloists or ‘Les Arts Florissant’. The latter can be a little mannered with ornamentation but William Christie has a lighter touch.

There is however much to enjoy with this new version. It has spirit and is alive with a true sense of theatre. All in all, if this sounds the kind of approach that appeals to you then the CD should be searched out without more ado. There is a very helpful essay by Erin Helyard who made the performing edition used for this production. We are also treated to a full track listing and all the texts are given.

Gary Higginson

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