The Fairy Queen: Musically a Triumph but the Production Tried Too Hard

12/10/2016

Purcell, The Fairy Queen (semi-staged performance): Soloists, Choir of the Academy of Ancient Music; Academy of Ancient Music / Richard Egarr (harpsichord/director). Barbican Hall, London, 10.10.2016. (CC)

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AAM’s The Fairy Queen (c) Ben Ealovega

Timothy West – Narrator
Rowan Pierce – Soprano
Mhairi Lawson – Soprano
Iestyn Davies – Counter-Tenor
Charles Daniels – Tenor
Gwilym Bowen – Tenor
Ashley Riches – Bass

Daisy Evans – Stage Director
Emma Black – Assistant Director
Jake Wiltshire – Lighting Director

Purcell’s Fairy Queen is a difficult beast to handle, and as director Daisy Evans states, it is “basically, the incidental music to Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream” and, “without the play behind it, we’re left with a sequence of perfectly formed masques.” Evans also denies this was a semi-staged performance, claiming she wanted “to go the whole way” and provide us, the audience, with a “complete, fulfilling operatic experience”. Whether what we got is that is debatable, but it was entertaining. There’s nothing wrong with aiming high, either.

The stage initially becomes a “creating space”, a stage that isn’t quite ready, with cones, wires and lights littered all over the place. The house lights remained up at the beginning – the piece rather inched into being rather than opening with the stiff formality of a Barbican classical event. Comedic passages had all the elements of theatrical farce. Some rather hackneyed theatre tricks, such as “ushers” turning out to be chorus members and having a famous actor (Timothy West) reading from a script and repeatedly (deliberately) tripping up his lines amongst them, created something of a dissonance with the AAM’s exemplary playing and some simply superb singing. Lighting was well done, however, and there was plenty to enjoy. But whatever its shortcomings, the main failing was that Fairy Queens and Midsummer Nights are the stuff of enchantment and there was precious little that was enchanted about this production. Starry nights created by aimed battery-operated torches hardly melt the heart and cause one to recede into a childhood state – or childhood’s state – of expectant receptivity in which anything is believable, including fairies. There was a lot that clever about the production, but the question is how much might one wish to see it again? Not much, in this reviewer’s case.

Purcell’s music, though, is magnificent, and, at times, magnificently outrageous. For the latter, I think of the effectively shouted-at-the-top-of-their-range tenor duet “Let the fifes and the clarions and shrill trumpets sound”, splendidly and heroically delivered by Gwilym Bowen and the experienced Charles Daniels. The use of grounds is entirely characteristic of this composer and was done with all the sophistication one would expect. Much of the writing is, perhaps ironically in the light of my comments above, magical, and it certainly came across here in the AAM’s brilliant, chameleon reading of the score, with the Choir of the AAM showing itself to be, vocally and dramatically, the perfect blending of a multiplicity of fine soloists, each a fine singer in his or her own right. Richard Egarr directed with aplomb. From the chemistry between Egarr and Daisy Evans in the completely sold-out pre-concert talk, he absolutely buys Evans’ concept hook line and sinker and was there to give it its best chance.

Soprano Rowan Pierce, replacing an indisposed Sarah Tynan, was arguably the star of the show. Fresh voiced and the epitome of Love’s young dream in her entwining – both vocal and physical – with Iestyn Davies, and delivering a simply fabulous lament in Act 5, “O let me ever, ever weep” as well as a splendidly pure rendition of  “See, even Night herself is here to favour your design” in Act 2

“Floor Manager” Iestyn Davies felt under-used if one is aware of this singer’s vocal prowess. Yet he enjoyed his role with clear gusto; not for the first time, while watching him the thought did surface that this whole thing is probably more fun to perform in than to watch. Ashley Riches was a great asset, his fun drunken poet in the first scene a massive contrast to the section on Winter that closes the fourth act (“Now Winter comes slowly, pale, meagre and old.”) Riches has great stage presence, which tied to his fine, focused bass is a great combination.

A mixed reaction, then. Musically, a triumph, but there was a certain shallowness to the production that clearly tried so very hard.

Colin Clarke

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