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Henry PURCELL (1659-1695) The Fairy Queen [134:00]
Titania – Yvonne Kenny (soprano); Oberon – Thomas Randle (tenor); Puck – Simon Rice (dancer); King Theseus – Richard van Allan (bass); Drunken Poet – Jonathan Best (bass)
Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera/Nicholas Kok
David Pountney (director)
Quinny Sacks (choreographer)
rec. live, English National Opera, 1995
Sound – PCM Stereo
Subtitles: German, French, Spanish
Region Code 0; NTSC ARTHAUS MUSIK 100201 DVD [134:00]
The Fairy Queen was first produced in 1693 at the Dorset Garden Theatre in London. It comprised an adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, possibly by Thomas Betterton, to which a series of five Masques not directly related to the action of the play was added. It is Purcell’s music for these Masques together with a few instrumental numbers that is what is usually thought of as Purcell’s Fairy Queen. Although productions at Glyndebourne and elsewhere have shown that the original mixture of play and music can be effective and entertaining, the version by David Pountney filmed here contains just the musical parts of the whole, but with copious visual references to Shakespeare’s play. These include the characters of Titania and Oberon quarrelling over an Indian boy (here represented by a dancer), Puck (another dancer) and Theseus, King of Athens, as well as a quartet of four (unnamed) lovers and an ass for Titania (but not the untranslated Bottom). No dialogue is included, an understandable and wise decision given the size of the London Colosseum where it was filmed. The music is divided into a series of shorter episodes largely corresponding with Purcell’s score and largely in the order of Anthony Lewis’ edition of 1966 for Novello. In fact it actually uses a new edition by Clifford Bartlett for King’s Music and some sections have additional repeats within them.
Whilst the music of The Fairy Queen is unquestionably amongst Purcell’s greatest, concert performances of the music alone can seem like one good thing after another, with no obvious link between the various sections. Benjamin Britten’s version tried to make some sense of it but without noticeable success. David Pountney in this version attempts to provide the audience with characters who reappear in more than one section, giving some sort of overall continuity. At the same time he ensures that the original themes of the various Masques are retained. Thus the Drunken Poet, splendidly played by Jonathan Best, makes much of his scene early on in the evening but reappears, still far from sober, in later scenes. The chorus sing “Come let us leave the town” in the first scene, and four of their number do just that to become the wandering and confused lovers in later scenes. Taking a cue from the reference to a Chinese Man and Woman and to monkeys in the final sections, the stage is filled with a variety of Chinese references, including a chorus wielding little red books. There is never a moment when the viewer is not bombarded with visual references or gags, as well as a dazzling display of dancing from both the dancers and the singers. This certainly makes for entertaining viewing but does tend for much of the time to push the music into second place. This is regrettable when not only is it of superb quality but overall the performance is spirited and affecting as required by the constantly changing character of the music. Heard in isolation the vibrato of some of the singers, especially Yvonne Kenny, might seem unsuited to the music, but it convinces in context and in this very large building. Indeed her singing of The Plaint is one of the highlights. I am sure that I would have enjoyed this production in the theatre. On screen, however, the hyperactivity can be somewhat wearing, as well as tending to diminish Purcell’s music. This is not helped by video direction by Barrie Gavin which frequently fails to give the viewer time to establish what is happening and where, and instead chases around the stage.
Given its status as a “semi-opera” no one performance of The Fairy Queen will satisfy in all respects. Even if like me you regard this production overall as failing to meet many of its challenges, it is never less than wonderfully imaginative and for the most part musically convincing. Maybe it does show that it is best simply to perform the mixture of play and music as it was originally conceived, but this remains a fascinating and exhilarating alternative approach. John Sheppard