The Fairy Queen: Big Apple Baroque and Dušan Týnek Dance and Theatre, The Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College, New York, 14.6.2011 (SSM)
Lynn Norris (Juno/Wedding Singer)
Allison Pohl (Townie/Night/The Plaint)
Kate Bass (Fairy 1/ Spring! Hymen trio)
Kala Maxym (Nymph/Hymen duo)
Melanie Russell (Fairy 2/ Hymen trio)
Eric Brenner (Teacher)
Patrick Fennig (Mopsa/Clarion/Summer)
Alison Cheeseman (Mystery/Hymen duo)
Stephen Caldicott Wilson (Tenor Fairy/Chinese Man)
Scott Murphree (Autumn)
Jonathon Hampton (Fife)
Joshua Copeland (Drunken Poet/Hymen God of Marriage)
Thomas McCargar (Townie)
Ken Mattice (Coridon/Phoebus)
Michael Conwill (Winter)
Direction (Big Apple Baroque)
Choreography (Dušan Týnek)
Assistant Director (Rod Gomez)
Stage Manager (Lily Permutter)
Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen is often classified as semi-opera. Some of the libretto is spoken, some sung: a cross between opera and set stage pieces (masques). Much of the text is taken straight from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Fairy Queen is (even without going into its musical components) a hybrid of theatrical forms. Add to this mix the composer Henry Purcell, writing in a number of musical styles — the French style of Lully, the Italian style of Giovanni Draghi and the English style of John Blow — and you end up at best with a patchwork quilt and, at worst, a mishmash.
The theatrical demands of The Fairy Queen are onerous: a cast of 25 (in addition to the singers listed above), a production crew of 32, a dance troupe of 9, and an orchestra of 25 members. To say that this production, the first of this magnitude for the Big Apple Baroque and the Dušan Týnek Dance Theatre, didn’t stand up to the similarly produced performance last year at the Brooklyn Academy of Music under the direction of William Christie is only to repeat the admission made in the playbill that this was a “production that has been mounted without the customary props of space, time or money that normally underpin an entertainment of this scale and scope.”
The music that Purcell wrote for this opera is glorious, one memorable aria after another. Purcell had, like Mozart and Schubert, the ability to create wonderful melodies that sound as natural as human speech, that appear and disappear never to be heard again. The music spans a range of emotions from the drunken “Fill up the bowl” to the heartbreaking “Let me weep” (the sister aria to “When I am laid to earth” from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas). Purcell’s method, one that he used so often in his odes and welcome songs, is to begin with a ritornello leading into the vocal line and then towards the end have the chorus and/or orchestra pick up and end the aria. The orchestral pickup not only reiterates the theme but develops it as well.
The opening night performance suffered from first-night jitters, at least in the first three acts. In the masque scenes of the final two acts, the acting and singing improved considerably. Interspersed with the arias are interludes often filled with short dances. The dancing was quite professional, if a little derivative of the choreography in Mark Morris’s takes on Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” and “King Arthur.”
Although the staging lacked props, the same cannot be said of the costumes which were abundant, eloquent and colorful. However, some of the production decisions were the oddest I’ve ever seen. In Act Three, at the king’s birthday party, the king is equipped with a pair of sunglasses and a cell phone. Anachronism can be amusing, but it has to be meaningfully placed. One can’t have ambulances arrive to take Hamlet and Horatio to the hospital unless this anachronistic conceit was established early in the play. A video played on the backdrop and meant to enhance “Let me weep” might have been interesting in another context. This short film done in the silent movie style of Carl Dreyer or the more recent manner of Robert Bresson was quite impressive, but proved to distract one from concentrating on the Fairy Queen’s most poignant aria. Confusing as well was the playbill, the synopsis being a hodge-podge of details of the fictional libretto mixed inextricably with sources from Purcell’s time. It also includes references to scenes that have been elided from the actual performance. Confusingly, no bios are given for any cast or production member but pictures of the dancers and their bios are fully detailed.
The one outstanding singer, Lynn Norris, with a truly gorgeous voice able to clearly reach all of the audience, demonstrated her understanding that Baroque vocal style is not the same as 19th-century vocal style.