The Fairy Queen is a hybrid, a semi-opera and it was first seen at Glyndebourne in 2009 on the occasion of Henry Purcell's 350th birthday. It proved to be a jolly entertainment that does not dig deep into one's soul but it was good to see it again, as before produced by Jonathan Dove, seemingly no expense spared. The work is a species of masque, a form popular in the seventeenth century involving actors as well as singers, dancers and musicians. Poetic drama also features, in this case a rehash by Anon of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Curiously, although many of the lines are spoken, Purcell set none of them to music. Barring the first act, the other four each contains a section with text and music devoted to, variously, Sleep, Seduction, the New Day and Marriage. There are additional numbers involving Winter, a Drunken Poet plus Adam and Eve.
Purcell's music is lively and non-subjective, with one or two celebrated numbers such as Hark! the Echoing Air. The music before the second act is a high spot and was finely toned and shaped by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment directed with style by Laurence Cummings. The large cast performs with charm and versatility. There is always something to catch the eye or woo the ear, a giant spider, a full-sized horse, a roi soleil, funny mechanicals and a mass of furry telly tubbies.Carolyn Sampson captivated with a nocturnal song, Christopher Benjamin was a lovable Drunken Poet, David Soar a weather beaten Winter, Pennie Downie a fearsome Titania and Finbar Lynch a yobbo Oberon.
For once the weather was clement (July 25), sunny and kind, the Sussex audience enjoyed itself hugely and Henry Purcell was done proud.
An eminent musical academic once told me that when the architect, Inigo Jones, himself a renowned producer of masque, got married Purcell composed a saucy catch which began with the words: 'In I go, In I go Jones!! When I pointed out that Inigo Jones died in 1652 and that Purcell was not born until 1659 my academic friend countered "John, with dates you can prove anything".