Henry Purcell, The Fairy Queen, Glyndebourne Festival Opera at the Proms

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William Christie
William Christie

BBC Proms no. 7, July 21, 2009
Glyndebourne Festival Opera
Henry Purcell, The Fairy Queen

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
William Christie conductor
Glyndebourne Chorus
Francesca Gilpin Director

Semi-staging for BBC Proms directed by Francesca Gilpin, based on the original production for Glyndebourne by Jonathan Kent.

Desmond Barrit – Drunken Poet/Bottom
Jotham Annan – Puck
Joseph Millson – Oberon
Sally Dexter – Tatiana
Terrence Hardiman – Egeus
William Gaunt – Theseus
Paul McCleary – Quince
Brian Pettifer – Snug
Robert Burt – Mopsa / Flute
Jack Chissick – Snout
Roger Sloman – Starveling
Oliver Kieran-Jones – Lysander
Helen Bradbury – Helena
Susannah Wise – Hermina
Oliver Le Sueur – Demetrius

Carolyn Sampson, soprano
Lucy Crowe, soprano
Claire Debono, soprano
Anna Devin, soprano
Sean Clayton, tenor
Ed Lyon, tenor
Adrian Ward, tenor
Andrew Foster-Williams, bass-baritone
Lukas Kargl, baritone

Glyndebourne is only a quarter of a gas tank away from London, but a good seat at this swanky summer opera costs as much as four barrels of crude oil. It was a privilege, therefore, that Glyndebourne’s current production of Purcell’s masterpiece from 1692, The Fairy Queen, travelled to the Proms for one night. They couldn’t bring the scenery and the stage mechanisms, which are strange and lavish to judge from photos online, but we got everything else. London reviewers were agape at the marvels of Jonathan Kent’s production, so I was eager to see how an epic chamber opera, for that’s what this is, would translate in the wide open acreage of Albert Hall.

The event turned out to be at once exhilarating and exhausting.  For starters, it lasted four hours with a single short intermission. Wagnerian length wasn’t something I expected. On records and in most stagings, only Purcell’s glorious music is performed, which takes about two hours. The Fairy Queen isn’t an opera per se but a multimedia theatre piece, to use modern jargon, based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and if you toss in the play, even with large gobbets excised, the result is Shakespeare’s wondrous creation interspersed with masques, interludes, and dancing. Unlike Mendelssohn, Purcell doesn’t provide incidental music as a backdrop to Shakespeare’s words or commentary on the action. Purcell’s contribution is all but separate. Everything stops dead when the music commences, and when it’s over, Titania, Oberon, Puck, and the lost lovers take up their machinations again. The work is thus a strange hybrid, like watching Hamlet with a Christmas panto thrown in. Or if you are more high-minded, like Richard Strauss’s original notion of performing Molière’s Le bourgeois gentilhomme as a prelude to his opera, Ariadne auf Naxos.

Strauss abandoned his grandiose plan after the failed premiere. No matter how cushioned your life and your bottom, there’s only so much that sitzfleisch can bear in the name of culture. Last night’s Fairy Queen pushed the limits. Kent knew that he had a problem, but he was determined not to throw Shakespeare out as everyone usually does. Instead we had the delightful surfeit of a superb young company of actors, a marvellous corps of dancers, and a stageful of Baroque-trained singers who were as good as it gets. With a cast of forty, this really was epic chamber opera. And yet, when all is said and done, the world of Shakespeare doesn’t fit the world of Purcell; their two geniuses war against each other; their ambitions are equal and at odds.

Purcell put his primary energy into the three long masques that interrupt the action of the play, one devoted to the theme of sleep when the wandering lovers fall exhausted to the ground, one devoted to fairy revels when Titania beds Bottom the ass, and one at the very end devoted to an allegory about the harmonized world of humans and Nature. All were beautiful, especially the first, where Purcell’s languorous nocturnal melodies were at their most ravishing. Masques are stiff anachronistic affairs—when they came into fashion at the turning between the Elizabethan and Jacobean era, Shakespeare was ending his career and adapted to them in The Tempest. Kent went to extremes to make them less creaky. By extreme I mean dressing the chorus in rabbit suits and having them bonk in positions from the Kama Sutra, and later bringing on Adam and Eve, stark naked except for the requisite fig leaves, to sing their long arias (It’s a strange experience watching a nude sing Purcell.). The carnival of high and low styles wasn’t that far from a panto after all.

The Fairy Queen,  Glyndebourne Festival Opera  2009.  (at Glyndebourne) Photo Neil Libbert.
The Fairy Queen, Glyndebourne Festival Opera 2009. (at Glyndebourne) Photo Neil Libbert.

On the musical side, William Christie conducted from the keyboard, combining harpsichord and chamber organ. His band was fairly small but expert. Authentic instruments make small sounds, and I have no idea what anyone near the back of the hall or perched in the highest rafters actually heard (Christie could have been playing Rhapsody in Blue for all that the harpsichord carries in those vast spaces).  His talents are remarkable, though. Christie, born in Buffalo but famous for his Parisian troupe, Les Arts Florissants,  is never stiff or tepid, the two besetting sins of most period performers. His Purcell was sweet and poignant; one almost wished it could stand alone without the bother of Shakespeare. The sung texts are post-Dryden poesy of little account — another jarring note set against the play’s magical verse.  I didn’t know the names of the eight vocal soloists who came forward during the masques, but all were expressive and touching, doing full justice to the score, as did the small chorus, who spent their down time, which was extensive, watching the play as spectators.

Finally, a word about the staging itself.  Without scenery and props, we could get only a sketchy idea of Kent’s conception. The rude mechanicals were dressed as a janitorial crew, the high-born characters as Restoration aristocrats, the fairies as chic partygoers in black, with Oberon and Titania sporting black wings. One reviewer called them fallen angels; if so, they fell into the atelier of Christian Dior. It has become fashionable to play the fairies as dark, menacing creatures, contrary to Victorian sweetness. Kent adopted that stratagem. Yet what with bonking rabbits, bewigged aristos, allegorical Nature drifting around with green hands sprouting leaves, and a naked Adam and Eve, no single conception could really take hold. Maybe it made more coherent sense at Glyndebourne; I’m not rich enough to find out.

We were all knackered by the end, and whatever reservations one one could note, this was probably a historical production, at once lavish, ambitious, overreaching, and artistically first rate. Purcell himself never saw the like; none of us are likely to in the future.  I staggered home with my head spinning, like someone who has feasted on foie gras and plum pudding. No doubt passers-by mistook me for an allegory of Inebriation. They wouldn’t have been far wrong.

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