Henry Purcell’s A Fairy Queen with hip-hop from Les Arts Florissants in New York

United StatesUnited States Purcell, The Fairy Queen: Le Jardin des Voix, Dancers, Les Arts Florissants / Paul Agnew (musical direction). Alice Tully Hall, New York, 2.11.2023. (RP)

Ilja Aksionov (tenor) and Hugo Herman-Wilson (baritone) © Lawrence Sumulong/Lincoln Center

Staging and Choreography – Mourad Merzouki
Choreography assistant – Rémi Autechaud
Costumes – Claire Schirck
Lighting – Fabrice Sarcy

Le Jardin des Voix 2023 soloists: Paulina Francisco (soprano), Georgia Burashko, Rebecca Leggett, Juliette Mey (mezzo-soprano), Ilja Aksionov, Rodrigo Carreto (tenor), Hugo Herman-Wilson (baritone), Benjamin Schilperoort (baritone)

Dancers: Ian Debono (The Juilliard School), Joey Gertin (The Juilliard School), Samuel Florimond (Compagnie Käfig), Anahi Passi (Compagnie Käfig), Alary Ravin (Compagnie Käfig), Timothée Zig (Compagnie Käfig)

It has been well over thirty years, but the 1999 performance of Henry Purcell’s King Arthur by Les Arts Florissants at New York’s Alice Tully Hall is still with me. The musical virtuosity and the energy on stage were electrifying. The ensemble was back in Alice Tully on 2 November with Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, and it was just as brilliant.

The Fairy Queen is an allegorical adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, created to augment the play with musical scenes. The masque centers on love and marriage, contains allusions to the then-ruling British monarchs and provides insights into the country’s political aspirations. This is all achieved through Purcell’s wonderful music which delightfully depicts the plights of lovers both human and from the fairy realm.

Contemporary audiences are never treated to the elaborate stage sets, costumes, dance, acrobatics and actual fireworks that were essential to Restoration spectacles. They were extraordinary affairs, with the original production of The Fairy Queen in 1692 consuming almost half of the theater company’s annual budget.

In his semi-staged productions of Baroque operas, William Christie has never gone for the visual spectacle, focusing instead on the music. Les Arts Florissants, however, is not about to rest on its laurels or become predictable. To keep the juices flowing, interjecting a bit of hip-hop into the Baroque was just the thing. It may sound blasphemous, but it worked.

The production was staged by the French Algerian hip-hop choreographer Mourad Merzouki and features dancers from his troupe, Compagnie Käfig, and The Juilliard School. Merzouki painted the action in movement as effectively as Purcell had in music. The hip-hop and acrobatics were indeed spectacular.

Only once did movement derail the music. It is hard for someone singing a plaintive melody to compete with a dancer so energized that the audience breaks into spontaneous applause. Undoubtedly, a seventeenth-century one would have reacted in much the same way to a burst of fireworks. It is just the wow-factor at play.

Les Arts Florissants’s The Fairy Queen © Lawrence Sumulong/Lincoln Center

Although the most athletic choreography was reserved for the dancers, the singers were also called upon to move. The sight of the entire company swirling about the stage and landing in a perfectly staged tableau was mesmerizing. One of the loveliest moments was when the dancers imitated birds to the sound of recorders in ‘A Bird’s Prelude’.

The singers are all fellows of Le Jardin des Voix. Founded in 2022, it was established by William Christie and Paul Agnew, the co-director of Les Arts Florissants, to train new generations of singers to perform the Baroque repertoire. The level of performance was so incredibly high from these young singers that it was impossible to draw any distinction between them and the professionals who regularly perform with the ensemble.

Two musical numbers, as opposite as could be, were among the musical highlights. Comedic delight was provided by tenor Ilja Aksionov and baritone Hugo Herman-Wilson in the ‘Dialogue between Coridon and Mopsa’. Violinist Augusta McKay Lodge and mezzo-soprano Juliette Mey produced sounds of utmost despair in ‘O let me weep’.

Agnew led the musical performance with all the style that was to be expected. Purcell provided wonderful music not only for the singers but for the instrumentalists as well. Trumpet fanfares open the piece, and it even contains a timpani solo, to say nothing of charming music for the woodwinds. Movement only enhanced its delights.

Rick Perdian

Leave a Comment