United Kingdom Purcell, The Fairy Queen: Soloists and Chorus of Bury Court Opera with Southbank Sinfonia/Simon Over (conductor), Bury Court, Farnham, 22.2.2014. (RD)
Tucked into a gentle fold of Hampshire, just off the A31 near Farnham, Bury Court Opera is one of the newer additions to the world of Grange Park, Garsington and countrified opera. It’s on a more modest scale, but the venue – an atmospheric timbered barn with an acoustic that feels tailor-made for such an enterprise – is something of a gem; and with a conductor and musicians in place – Simon Over and his formidably talented young instrumentalists of the Southbank Sinfonia – it deserves to become a regular engagement on anyone’s opera calendar.
The company started with Purcell – a production of Dido and Aeneas – and after Verdi, Rossini, Tchaikovsky (and visiting Debussy) has turned again to the reign of William and Mary for one of the gems of the early Baroque – The Fairy Queen. It’s a problematic piece, not because of the music, which is top-drawer Purcell (1691-2), but because the text is virtually non-existent, so that sense needs to be made of the rag-tag of arias, choruses and occasional duets which parody the fey world of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream without actually fusing with it precisely.
However a dream, a rather marvellous one, is what director Julia Burbach, Bury Court’s former Movement Director, and long associated as an assistant producer with the Royal Opera, has come up with to draw these elusive strands together. Her fairy land is a school, from the 1940s, where a benign regime obtains and the Head (baritone Aidan Smith) and his Caretaker (non-singing Jon Shaw) seem to assent to and quietly enable the goings-on, the shy pairings-off and sly of rumbustious cavortings, of staff and pupils and (in just one brief, tender instance) cross-generational allure.
The Fairy Queen is a sequence of permissions and denials (‘No, no, no, no kissing at all’ – nominally a Virgil-inspired Eclogue between Corydon and Mopsa). Lilly Pappaioannou, trained at Chetham’s Music School, the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow, and then the Guildhall, produced the extraordinary, glowing Agnes-Baltsa-like deep tones, for a moment eclipsing two sumptuous countertenors, each pure nectar to listen to: ex-St. John’s Cambridge choral scholar John Lattimore (‘One charming night gives more delight than a hundred lucky Days’) and – in the pièce de résistance, a reiterated ‘Hush, no more, be silent all’ – the stunning offstage sound of Sudan-born Magid El Bushra.
Burbach’s manipulation of the multifaceted, inventively drilled cast – the massed chorus (a wondrous alto-topped ‘Let the fifes and the clarions’), and the pupils (‘speak, speak’, then ‘pinch, pinch’) at first centre stage and then ranged like watching deities above, in a kaleidoscope of beguiling blocks and rearrangings, their elders wooing and cooing and evading and occasionally even teaching, was endlessly absorbing. Pappaioannou becomes a Titania, Aidan Smith’s beautifully empathetic, warm-timbred Head, drunk or sober, a conjuring Oberon. And some of the best vivacious singing came from David Webb as the tenor gym fanatic, as athletic a courtier as instructor, here and there acquiring the engaging tinge of a Robert Tear (a delicious ‘Come all ye Songsters’).
But the girls have even more of the plums. Two of the students (Grace Carter, Flore Philis) brought poignancy as well as charm to their brief interjections. The Science Teacher, Helen-Jane Howells, delivered several mesmerising numbers (‘Ye gentle spirits…’) in this stellar score. But star billing was given to the hyperflirtatious School Secretary (Eloise Irving), who meshed with continuo and instrumental accompaniment alike (‘Trip it for the fairy queen’) to work many a sumptuous soprano delight.
One trio – the peroration ‘They shall be as happy’ – sounded like pure Handel before its time. Over’s band, sporting a particularly expressive Baroque oboe (Julia Hantschel), and much beautifully weighted, insightful upper and lower string playing, in the ground bass sections (one topped by pleading recorder) and triple time twirlings not least, furnished scrupulously balanced, never intrusive or overinsistent, support. In all respects it was an evening of pure rapture.