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Henry Purcell : The Fairy Queen  

Prom 7



The Glyndebourne Chorus, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, William Christie (conductor).


Singers : Miriam Allan, Lucy Crowe, Claire de Bono, Anne Devin, Helen-Jane Howeth, Rachel Redmond, Carolyn Sampson, Robert Burt, Sean Clayton, Ed Lyon, Adrian Ward, Lucas Kargl, Joihn MacKenzie, Andrew Foster-Williams, Desmond Barrit


Actors : Jotham Annan, Helen Bradbury, Jack Chissick, Sally Dexter, William Gaunt, Terrence Hardiman, Oliver Kieran-Jones, Taliesin Knight, Oliver Le Sueur, Paul Mc Cleary, Joesph Milson, Brian Pettifer, Roger Sloman, Susannah Wiise

Dancers : Nono Campos, Laura Cladrow, Tommy Frazen, Anthony Kurt-Gabel, Omar Gordon, Caroline Lynn, Muarizio Montis, Sarah Storer


Royal Albert Hall, London, 21th July 2009



Glyndebourne comes to the Proms


At Glyndebourne, Purcell’s The Fairy Queen was utterly spectacular (illustrated R).

Fairies tumbled out of walls, Gods descended from the roof, clouds of rose petals wafted from they sky into the audience.  Obviously such wonders aren’t possible in the Royal Albert Hall but somehow the Glyndebourne atmosphere manages to travel.


Some Prommers wear tuxedos and evening gowns. It was raining so I couldn’t picnic in the Park, but did the Glyndebourne thing in spirit,


Hearing The Fairy Queen at the Proms has its advantages. Although spectacular is very much integral to baroque extravaganza, a semi staged concert performance lets you focus more on detail.  The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was itself part of the action, and William Christie made sure we noticed. The wind ensemble stood up to play, emphasizing their role in the music’s development. Musically, the theorbo/harpsichord dialogues mirror the interplay between the world of mortals and fairies. Putting them centre stage maximizes both musical and visual impact.


The First Act starts in the realm of “reality”, Theseus and Egius, and the four lovers in full 17th century finery. Then the workman appear as cleaners, literally “clearing away the cobwebs”, complete with vacuum cleaners. Desmond Barrit brings proceedings down to earth, in his hilarious portrayal of the Drunken Poet (and Bottom) as a gritty Welshman. At one point he places his hands round his ears to make them look bigger and intones  like Prince Charles. Brilliant !  Beneath the carefree gaiety, there’s no way of masking the subversive undercurrent in Shakespeare’s original.  The posh folk may sneer at the workmen, but they’re no match for the fairies, who undo the ways of men. 


The lovers escape from the palace by running into the woods. But night transforms the forest into mystery. In the darkness, all is illusion, so it doesn’t really matter all that much if we don’t see the spider in this concert performance. Night releases dreams, and dreams release the imagination.  This is the fairy realm, where Titania and Oberon rule, albeit with chaos, but where rigid reality holds no sway. The fairies pull off the lover’s clothes, leaving them exposed in every sense.


This performance retains the essentials of the staging. The fairies are garbed in black, some with sinister wings, for the supernatural represents the unconscious. It’s dangerous. Titania, played by Sally Dexter, is a magnificent virago, her voice trembling with intense power. The love/hate relationship between her and Oberon (Joseph Millson) has drama even without the other levels in the plot whose complexities defy logic. Puck (Jotham Annan) is physical energy personified, half mortal, half animal. Perhaps that’s why he’s the agent who carries out Oberon’s orders, dispensing the magic potion which creates such mayhem.


The Proms performance also gives greater weight to the workmen and their play-within-a play. This can be easily staged, simply by costumes and good acting. Very good acting indeed, especially in the case of Desmond Barrit and Robert Burt, hilarious in drag, who

are primarily singers. Similarly, Ed Lyon, who appears naked, his modesty concealed by a fig leaf, but sings a long part with complete assurance. Andrew Foster-Wiilliams does the comic role of Hymnen, the reluctant god of marriage, who has to start singing, heroically, right after running in from the stalls, and round the stage. What’s more, he’d just finished singing Winter in the tableaux, acting the song vocally, complete with the wheezes of frost and old age.


This opera is full of vignettes, like Juno (Lucy Crowe), Phoebus, the Sun King (Lukas Kargl) and the Seasons and the Plaint. Carolyn Sampson). Very good dancing, too, which is something we rarely see at the Proms.


On this occasion, William Christie didn’t even attempt to get the audience to join in the merry chorus “They shall be happy, happy, happy be”. The prospect of 7000 people singing along would have been sensational, but too much to seriously expect.  In Glyndebourne, the performance ended with buckets of rosepetals pouring from the heavens. Again, this isn’t feasible in the Royal Albert Hall, but this Prom was so much fun, it felt like it was happening in spirit.


Incidentally, the edition used in this performance is a new one, made for the Purcell Society by Bruce Wood and Andrew Pinnock. It’s vivacious and well paced, and practical for future performance and productions.


Anne Ozorio