The Fairy Queen
Longborough Festival Opera *****
‘The Fairy Queen’ is often described as a “Restoration spectacular” and that term certainly proved to be apt in this fresh and vibrant take on Purcell’s semi-opera: a fascinating mash-up of baroque and folk music, interwoven with chunks of Shakespeare’s text from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that – whilst the inspiration for Purcell’s work – forms no part of the composer’s original libretto; indeed, this new production was as much ‘semi-play’ as ‘semi-opera’.
What so easily could have been an unhappy marriage of mixed musical styles was anything but in the sensitive hands of Co-Music Directors Harry Sever & Naomi Burrell; their realisation blended these styles seamlessly, and of course so many of Purcell’s masques in ‘The Fairy Queen’ are close in idiom to folk music of the time.
In the hands of Director Polly Graham and Designer Nate Gibson, Shakespeare’s wood became an abandoned urban theme park, complete with giant swan (referenced in Purcell’s music) and ice cream cone, whilst the costumes included a liberal sprinkling of glitter and spangle.
The extensive young cast (including members of Longborough’s Emerging Artist Programme and youth chorus) threw themselves into this fantastical world with enthusiasm and commitment. The Athens lover’s quartet of Hermia (Helen Broomfield, soprano), Lysander (Peter Edge, bass-baritone), Helena (Annie Reilly, mezzo-soprano), and Demetrius (Luke Horner, tenor) were well matched, with polished blend in their various combinations. Of the tradesmen, Bottom (baritone George Robarts) did a fine comedic turn when transformed into an ass, his voice hee-hawing as if it was breaking; Robarts also doubled up as the stuttering Drunken Poet in Purcell’s aria whose inebriation would have made Dudley Moore proud.
There was convincing interplay between the quarrelling Titania (Rachel Speirs, soprano) and Oberon (Lars Fischer, tenor), whilst Alys Mererid Roberts (soprano) coloratura-like Flute/Fairy 1 revelled in Purcell’s wordplay (“Trip it, trip it in a ring”). The chorus acquitted themselves admirably too, and a musical highlight for this reviewer was “Hush, no more, be silent”, sung in ‘surround sound’ by all singers from every corner and side aisle of the auditorium, enveloping the audience.
Special mention must be made of the nine instrumentalists, led so ably by Sever (keyboard/accordion) and Burrell (violin). Starting in the pit, they migrated one by one to the stage, fully integrating themselves into the drama – quite literally as “character players” – playing from memory for much of the evening, with outstanding style and panache; it also may be the only time I will see baroque specialists wearing deeley boppers!