The Fairy Queen, by Henry Purcell

Pinchgut Opera conducted by Antony Walker. Principal soloists: Sara Macliver (soprano), Sally-Anne Russell (mezzo- soprano), Jamie Allen, Paul McMahon (tenors), and Stephen Bennett (bass). Supporting soloists: Miriam Allan, Belinda Montgomery, Alison Morgan (sopranos), Jenny Duck-Chong (mezzo-soprano), Brett Weymark (tenor), Corin Bone, Simon Lobelson (baritones). Cantillation (chamber choir) and the Orchestra of the Antipodes led by Anna McDonald
Classical, Early Music, Opera
ABC Classics 481 1705
Reviewed by , November 1st, 2015

At the time Henry Purcell (1659-1695) was composing the music for The Fairy Queen, the London public had developed a definite taste for dramas presented as fanciful large scale spectacles with music and dances as well as dialogue. This new genre was called ‘semi-opera. It had developed from a mix of Restoration court masque and Baroque heroic play (as exemplified by those of John Dryden).

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Court masques celebrated important events and were designed for the King’s entertainment. They consisted of songs, dances and dialogues, organized into an allegorical drama culminating in a triumphal celebration with courtiers joining in the dancing on the stage. There would be an implicit acknowledgement of the near divinity of the current reigning monarch by reference to the supremacy of the Sun or the God of Love or some other great deity. Heroic plays had serious plots involving vexed lovers’ affairs set against a background of war where Love would finally triumph, ennobling all with its power. Classical subjects, involving the adventures of Greek gods, and set in ancient times, were used, and the audience was effectively transported far from the harsh realities of Restoration England. There was also the influence of the great tradition of tragi-comedy, which reached its finest expression in the plays of Shakespeare. So out of this mix came The Fairy Queen with a libretto loosely based on A Midsummer’s Night Dream of Shakespeare. Each act started with a few minutes of music before the dialogue started, and then between acts, a longer masque was played and sung where the pieces related to some aspect of the preceding drama.

Its first glittering production by Thomas Betterton in 1692 at the Dorset Garden Theatre was a triumph both visually and musically. The company had spent about two thirds of its annual operating budget (around $3000) in order to outdo its competitors at the Royal Theatre in Drury Lane in sumptuous spectacle and clever stage effects. The audience applauded its large architectural sets, its state–of-the-art Continental stage machinery which moved fairies and various deities around and above the stage, its sets that magically opened up to reveal yet another exotic scene, and of course the 12 foot high working fountain and six live dancing monkeys! It was revised in 1693, with more music added to the first act, and then mysteriously, Purcell’s marvelous original score just disappeared. It was his score, in fact, that was responsible for transforming the underlying mediocre farce (since the unknown librettist had unfortunately mutilated Shakespeare’s play!) to a work of heavenly enchantment and dignity. It was soon recognized as a masterpiece. In 1901, Purcell’s manuscripts were finally discovered in the library vaults of the Royal Academy of Music. Erin Helyard prepared a new edition from the facsimiles of those manuscripts for Pinchgut Opera’s live performances in 2003 and this excellent ABC studio recording was made shortly afterwards. The original orchestra consisted of two recorders, two oboes, two trumpets, kettledrums, string instruments and harpsichord continuo. In Helyard’s edition, a bassoon is added.

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Nowadays staging the work usually involves dispensing with the spoken dialogue because audience tastes are so different, monarchs no longer seem divine, and shows are expected to last only a few hours. After The Fairy Queen, the genre deteriorated as the overwhelming desire to impress via spectacle finally destroyed any dramatic value, and production costs were impossible to sustain.

So to those unfamiliar with this style of musical drama, The Fairy Queen seems to be a disjointed array of beautiful songs, choruses and dances, with no underlying storyline giving it dramatic sense. Italian opera, with recitatives and arias based on a plot did not take off in London until a decade after Purcell’s death. The masques placed at the end of each of the five acts form separate unified works and complement some aspect of the preceding action with nine or ten contrasting pieces – dances, or songs, duets, trios, chorus, or short orchestral numbers. Contrasts are used very effectively – one is never bored. Rather one marvels at the ingenuity of Purcell in expressing all manner of different dramatic ideas. His command of Baroque counterpoint is unsurpassed.

The interesting CD background notes from Helyard help to orient us to this musical feast. The texts of the songs, the names of the singers in Cantillation and the orchestral players (plus information about their period instruments) are all appropriately listed in the CD booklet. The two trumpeters were excellent so it was good to be able to find out who they were – Leanne Sullivan and Helen Gill.

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Pinchgut Opera, founded in 2002, has been presenting chamber operas from the 17th and 18th centuries using Australian casts, theatre directors and designers. The joint artistic directors are Erin Helyard and Antony Walker and all productions are recorded by ABC Classics and released on CD.

This recording is a very fine one, with stand-out voices in the leading parts – Sally-Anne Russell, Sara Macliver, Stephen Bennett, Jamie Allen and Paul McMahon. Sally-Anne Russell’s performances of “Music for a While” and “O let me Weep” were highlights for me. No one weaves more beautiful melodies over a chromatic ground bass than Purcell! And with her meltingly beautiful creamy tones and effortless legato line, Russell ‘s singing is superb. Macliver’s pure soprano and coloratura shines particularly in “Ye gentle Spirits of the Air” and “Hark! The Echoing Air”. Hearing such a variety of Australian supporting soloists is very enjoyable too, with Alison Montgomery giving a fine performance of the long aria ”See, even Night herself is free” and Simon Lobelson as the Drunken Poet singing ”Fill up the Bowl” with suitable comic gusto. Antony Walker’s tempi seem ideal to me and he draws a wonderful sound from the band and Cantillation. It is always full of vitality with impeccable ensemble, good balance and well-executed dotted rhythms that often make one want to get up and dance. Listening to the opening numbers with trumpets blaring and call and answer effects, one realizes that Handel was greatly influenced by Purcell especially in the ceremonial music he later composed for royal occasions.

This two-CD set is an outstanding addition to the ABC Classics series and Pinchgut Opera is to be congratulated again for the excellence of their music making.

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