Wednesday 12 October 2011

Shifting, shimmering, leaping

The Fairy Queen, by Henry Purcell, Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, London

English Touring Opera, directed by Thomas Guthrie

The Fairy Queen is a strange but enchanting piece, all allusion, movement and fleeting moment shorn of clear narrative shape, pulled along sprightfully by Purcell’s characteristic depth and sparkle. Its theme of Titania and Oberon’s fairy forest, where puckish, supernatural beings giggle gleefully across the stage, dream and reality blur and nothing is quite as it seems is drawn directly from Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream - and the shifting, shimmering quality of the play permeates the work.

Each of the six separate episodes of Purcell’s piece (‘Bedlam’, ‘Loss’, ‘Birthday’) imaginatively develops different moods or moments that relate loosely back to the main story. Originally, the characters were symbolically called things like Night, Mystery, Secrecy, Sleep or the names of the four seasons. And as performance, Purcell’s semi-opera – a Restoration spectacular - was intended to sit alongside Shakespeare’s play and punctuate its main acts - as there were set changes, for example, or people took to their seats, using dancers, elaborate costumes and opulent, often mechanical scenery. This all makes its performance today a tricksy affair, but opens new possibilities for production and exciting experiences for audiences.

The English Touring Opera’s intelligent new interpretation takes a Victorian madhouse for its setting, with shuffling pyjama-clad inmates who may or may not be mad, asleep or awake, alongside uniformed doctors and nurses who bustle and bristle then get drawn in. It is not very obvious who everybody is as parts shift and evocative puppets grace the stage alongside two sinuous dancers, and the addition of two aerialists looping, jumping and catching each other from a trapeze suspended from the ceiling only adds to the spectacle and mischievous spirit.

This is a thoughtful production, but despite good intentions the lurking problem here is too much frenetic action and scant stillness on stage, smothering the profound, solid moments that reach out through the swirls of dream and enchantment to make clear emotional connections. Several of the characters - the two pairs of male and female nurses - are drawn too thin and have little to work with; the orchestra wobbles at times with such demanding musical metrics and sometimes the musical line gets lost. Despite these minor problems, however, there is genuine passion and verve in performance from all: the ETO’s ambition is preferable to more conservative approaches, and draws out the stamina of singers, musicians and dancers alike.

In fact, one striking aspect of The Fairy Queen is the balanced, tuneful nature of the music compared to the ethereal flux on stage. Purcell stands out from his contemporaries and even later composers in his distinctive, exuberant voice, his assuredness in handling mood, from unabated joy to deep-set emotional longing and despair. Accordingly, some parts of this work, such as ‘Let me weep’ are also performed as solo concert pieces (an ENO’s production is even on YouTube). Purcell’s even-handedness is never dull, and speaks of a deep experience and generous humanity that helps him speak to us directly now, in the present.

This underlying musical coherence helps to ground the ETO’s performance, so any hiccups don’t impede the force of the work: an escaped inmate cavorting about the audience is done convincingly, a transvestite counter-tenor wriggles around amusingly and everybody leaps around with energy. Noticeably, The Fairy Queen was first performed in 1692, three years before Purcell’s death at 35, at the popular Queen’s Theatre in Dorset Garden (and included children fairies), only for the score to be lost and not rediscovered until the early years of the twentieth century. This adds to a sense of having fresh material to work with.

In fact, whilst the birth of opera itself is traced back to Italy, the genre of semi-opera so well handled by Purcell was distinctive to England in the heady dynamics of the late 17th century, a peculiar product of the Restoration period. King Charles II had been ‘restored’ in 1660; one of his first public acts was to re-open the theatres famously shut down by the Puritans under the short-lived democratic republic led by Cromwell (referred to now dryly by historians as the netural-sounding ‘Interregnum’). In Charles II’s reign, in obvious contrast, there was a renewed, popular focus on public art-works.

One interesting feature of the semi-opera is then the way it drew on the earlier genre of the ‘masque’ that had percolated in earlier English courts, and repackaged it in a public-facing form more palatable to broader audiences. The ‘spectacular’ of the restoration spectacular was exactly that: an emphasis on entertainment, being visually stunned, impressed and thoroughly enjoying yourself. This quality that makes The Fairy Queen a good choice for the ETO.

Overall, this enthusiastic production has much to commend it, and is impressive from a busy travelling troupe ambitious and confident enough to stage more difficult pieces. More broadly, a spirited, relatively low-budget production like this reminds us there is room for a more vibrant amateur scene within opera that can serve to create new audiences through this sort of passionate, intimate engagement.

Second performance in London on Thursday 13 October, then touring.


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