Jolly Good Show
Purcell’s The Fairy Queen is usually described as a semi-opera in a Prologue and five acts, libretto by anon, an adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Act one drags a bit; after a breezy overture there is no music for quite some time while actors speak a courtly, rather tedious, conservation piece. This is an expensive piece to put on since it requires actors, a bevy of dancers, many singers, a chorus and a band in the pit. At Glyndebourne (I was there July 10) the super skilled and lively Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was directed from the harpsichord by the great William Christie, a wonderful scholar who energised his forces superbly.
The latter four acts each contain a masque that reflects various stages of the Dream: Sleep, Seduction, the New Day/the Seasons and Marriage, the last an essay in chinoiserie, worth waiting for in a three-hour stint, because it has some of the best music. Most people will know the song of the D-d-drunken Poet, the comic duet of Corydon and Mopsa (enacted on a credible-looking haystack) and Hark, the Echoing Air, possibly The Plaint too. The orchestra has act tunes and the quaintly named Symphony While the Swans come Forward. There are nearly sixty numbers altogether, many solo numbers, ensembles and choruses. Glyndebourne fielded seventeen solo singers, among whom Lucy Crowe and Carolyn Sampson shone particularly brightly. The singing was of a high standard, the chorus was first-rate and a good time is had by all.
Jonathan Kent’s direction (designer Paul Brown, brilliant invention throughout) is serious and rollicking by turn, never in bad taste, always serving the music and the composer. A favourite scene is one where the stage is awash with man-sized rabbits, all rutting away.
The first performance of the work was in London and cost £3000, a figure roughly equivalent to half a million of today’s money. At Glyndebourne no expense was spared: this was a bold choice and a thoroughly successful accomplishment. Sally Dexter was an imposing Titania and the Rustics did their comic stuff winningly, led by Desmond Barrit as a really funny Bottom – their words came over much clearer than the rest of the cast. Incidentally, six singers were recruited from Glyndebourne’s chorus, a feature which worked well.
Purcell’s music never fails in liveliness, tenderness and appositeness, the score is full of heart-easing melodies, catchy rhythms, metrical quirks and daring harmonies. The work is something of a hodge-podge but one fashioned by a genius.
21 July The Fairy Goes to Town
To the Royal Albert Hall, to pinpoint it, for a BBC Prom starting at 6.30 and over-running until 10.30. And the big question was; how would the very, visible Glyndebourne show transfer to the Albert? Answer, very well. Listeners at home missed a lot, of course, because the relay was radio, not telly. But the Radio audience would have heard the outstanding musical performance noted in the previous review and they would have heard 5000 people in the hall roaring with laughter at the jokes and the business; a stimulating thing to hear. In the hall Glyndebourne had done a marvellous, sumptuous, clever job. The site was a large platform covering most of the stage area which existed behind the small orchestra, strings, oboes, trumpets, two harpsichords (William Christie, the director at one of them) but no double basses. (Purcell didn’t use any).
No sets but all the costumes, lavish, eloquent, even down to the monkeys and the rampageous rabbits. Everything was danced, spoken and acted as at Glyndebourne. This was a Prom de luxe, thoroughly enjoyable (every hour of it!) One musical feature that I didn’t mention; Purcell’s clever, dramatic use of silence, gosh, that man was up to so many telling devices. And controlling everything carefully but yet with an air of spontaneity as was William Christie. We owe him much. He’s a master.