Longborough’s season ends with a ravishing interpretation of Purcell’s The Fairy Queen

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Longborough Festival Opera 2023 [4] – Purcell, The Fairy Queen: Soloists, Musicians using orchestral material from The Early Music Company / Harry Sever (conductor). Longborough, Gloucestershire, 2.8.2023. (CP)

Longborough Festival Opera’s The Fairy Queen © Matthew Williams-Ellis

Director – Polly Graham
Co-Music directors – Harry Sever and Naomi Burrell
Designer – Nate Gibson
Lighting designer – Tim Mitchell
Movement director – Carmine De Amicis
Youth Chorus Team – Julian Harris and Maria Jagusz


World of Athens
Hermia – Eleanor Broomfield
Hippolyta – Rachel Spiers
Helena – Annie Reilly
Theseus – Lars Fischer
Demetrius – Luke Horner
Egeus – Suzie Purkis
Lysander – Peter Edge

World of Fairies
Titania – Rachel Spiers
Oberon – Lars Fischer
Puck – Suzie Purkis
Fairy 1 – Alys Mererid Roberts
Fairy 2 – Angharad Rowlands
Fairy 3 – Rhydian Jenkins
Fairy 4 – Edward Jowle

World of Mechanicals
Flute – Alys Mererid Roberts
Snug – Suzie Purkis
Quince – Angharad Rowlands
Bottom – George Robarts
Snout – Rhydian Jenkins
Starveling – Edward Jowle

with the Longborough Youth Chorus

Before most of the full house had found their seats, the pre-show had been running for more than ten minutes. That was Lysander (Peter Edge) gyrating in self-compassion – as he sings endless love songs accompanied from the pit by the Longborough Band. For much of the next two hours the musicians exited the pit to make important contributions on the stage and be very much involved in the action. A ‘duty of care’ is always in place for performers. This must surely now be extended to a ‘duty of care’ for musicians’ instruments. No sooner had the house lights dimmed, then aisle lighting spotlighted the arrival of a host of protesters – a departure from the original story – with banners exhorting us to SAVE THE WORLD BEFORE WE CAN’T and RESPECT EXISTENCE OR EXPECT RESISTANCE. These powerful messages set the scene for an extraordinary interpretation of Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, this year’s Longborough Emerging Artists production. The anonymous adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, premiered in London in 1692 and reflected the sometimes-disputed changing nature of audiences in ‘restoration’ theatres at the time. Academics suggest there was a change in Restoration comedy of the 1680s and 90s which was attributed to the influence of ‘the Ladies’ in opposition to ‘the Gallants’ who had the ascendance in the 1670s. Polly Graham, Longborough’s Artistic Director, in conjunction with her co-music directors, Harry Sever and Naomi Burrell, deliver a remarkable Restoration Spectacular. Graham buys into this restoration thinking whilst adhering to Shakespeare’s script which requires a play within a play – ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ within The Fairy Queen. Graham remains loyal to the plot using this approach to reiterate many of the important themes and main ideas present in the main plot. Of course, parallels exist between the main storyline and the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, including a considerable dose of forbidden love.

Graham’s exploration of the ways music could be woven through the action produces spectacular results. Goodness me! This is achieved in spades; not just baroque music but folk music, including reels, hornpipes and jigs, accompanied at one point by Adrian Woodward playing the medieval wheel instrument – the hurdy-gurdy!  Woodward deserves recognition, too, for his natural horn playing during Act V – a task made even more difficult as he was dressed for stage action and expected to maintain its frantic pace. Supporting his hurdy-gurdy playing on stage is Harry Sever’s accordion, archlute, timpani and keyboards including harpsichord and members of the string desks; hence the concern mentioned earlier for a ‘duty of care’ for instruments. At times when the musicians desert the pit to become theatrical performers and thus the companions of the fairies in their nightlong raves, a host of young chorus members took over illustrating their gymnastic skills when required to mount the pit wall and descend into the bowels of the auditorium – there must be secret door at one end of the pit! This modernisation of the plot was an exciting development with light-heartedness levels high.

Longborough Festival Opera’s The Fairy Queen © Matthew Williams-Ellis

Nate Gibson built a reputation for making the best use of any space with his designs for The Cunning Little Vixen, the Emerging Artist production in 2021. His glittering strip curtain heralds a remarkable fairyland when it collapses and he proves once again that the Longborough stage can accommodate upwards of sixty artists and musicians at one time, an enormous achievement when many a designer finds the floor area in this, one of the smaller summer opera houses, a challenge. He successfully begged and borrowed the most striking array of props including a massive swan salvaged from the abandoned Spreepark amusement site in Berlin (probably now on its way to Bayreuth for their next production of Lohengrin), a massive ice-cream cone with Bottom (George Robarts) inside and two huge clown heads are used in the play within the play. To facilitate the sixty on stage a scaffold structure hosts some of the more valuable instruments including the harpsichord.  Thirty of the sixty are members of the Longborough Youth Chorus, a product of a very successful ‘outreach programme’ and the diligent coaching and mentoring of Julian Harris, Maria Jagusz and Jessica May.

Amongst the thirty musicians and singers are newcomers to the Emerging Artists programme, including Rachel Speirs (Titania) who leads the World of the Fairies, successfully escaping the attentions and wrath of her jealous husband Oberon (Lars Fischer) in Act I. Spiers makes a big impact with her feisty acting and, when required, her seductive singing. Another Emerging Artist, Suzie Purkis (Puck and Snug) makes a very fine Longborough debut with her invigorating performance, full of spark. She is a product of the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and Opera Works at ENO and it would no surprise to see her return to Longborough. Angharad Rowlands (Quince) from the World of Mechanicals, is another debutant making an impression with her lush sound.  Act II involves Fischer’s Oberon in cahoots with Purkis’s Puck preparing a magic potion and Act III sees Helena (Annie Reilly, an American mezzo-soprano and another debutant) showing tenacity in her search for love with Demetrius (Luke Horner). He performs strongly in his battles over their respective lovers with Lysander (Peter Edge). Eleanor Broomfield (Hermia) stars in the leading role in the World in Athens, she sings strongly giving a memorable performance. Movement director, Carmine De Amicus works wonders with the very well-rehearsed Youth Chorus, who have the final say, with a return of their protests – THERE IS NO WORLD B, reminding all of us of the need to return from the fantasy world to the world of reality.

Clive Peacock

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