The Fairy Queen
Semi-Opera in 5 Acts (anonymous adaptation from Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream)
Carolyn Sampson, Gillian Keith, Rebecca Outram, Sopranos
Andrew Carwood, Robert Murray, Tenors
Michael Bundy, Bass; William Towers, Counter Tenor
New English Voices
Michael McCarthy Chorus master
Ottavio Dantone Conductor
ARTS 'authentic' 47679-2 [TT: 133 mins] www.artsmusic.de
This is a live recording from a happy Italian/English collaboration, before an appreciative audience at the Ravenna Festival, July 2001. The Fairy Queen comes from towards the end of Henry Purcell's short life (1659 - 1695). It was first staged in 1692 with great early success, but then the score disappeared for two hundred years before reappearing in the library of London's Royal Academy of Music; a first modern edition was published in 1903.
Running here to 133 minutes of music, intended as accompaniments and additional scenes to be given with a truncated version of Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, it is an unwieldy conflation in a quasi-operatic genre which relied especially upon spectacular scenic production. The whole work needs about four hours, of which the music comprises some two and a half, so compromises are usually called for. It contains some of Purcell's finest and most vividly dramatic music, a crazy farrago mixing elements of the Shakespeare play with set pieces ranging from a scene with a Drunken Poet and a rather incongruous Orientalist Chinese scene with monkey's dance, to depictions of the Seasons and a deeply moving Plaint, one of Purcell's finest.
I have seen a rather unsatisfactory production at The Guildhall in the City of London Festival, but would think it a most viable project for the Shakespear's Globe Theatre? Now is the time for a revaluation of these so called semi- and quasi- operas which, taken in the spirit of their times, have so much to offer us now.
Here we have all the music, expertly performed by leading singers on the Britsh Early Music scene, with a splendid specialist, 'historically informed' instrumental group, under the overall direction of Ottavio Dantone - idiomatic and in perfect character.
It is a cornucopia of delights, with more than twice as much vintage Purcell as in the justly admired Dido & Aeneas. There is a lot to be said for having The Fairy Queen on CD, with the stage directions provided by ARTS alongside full texts to help your imagination picture the vivid stage happenings, realised originally with complicated stage machinery, but surviving because they are counterpointed by Purcell's amazing music which encompasses so many moods.
Maybe it is only half an opera ("semi-" or "quasi-") but it is full of real operatic scenes which, to my mind, place The Fairy Queen firmly in what should be the operatic 'canon' of the period.
© peter grahame woolf 2003