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Henry PURCELL (1659 - 1695) The Fairy Queen - semi-opera in 5 acts (Z 629)
Gillian Keith, Rebecca Outram, Carolyn Sampson (soprano), William Towers (alto), Andrew Carwood, Robert Murray (tenor), Michael Bundy (bass), New English Voices, Accademia Bizantina/Ottavio Dantone
rec. 10 July 2001 (live), Teatro Rossini, Lugo di Romagna, Ravenna, Italy. DDD
Libretto available from http://www.brilliantoperacollection.com BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94221 [65:19 + 67:07]
In the course of the 17th century opera had developed into one of
the main musical genres on the European continent, and in particular
in France and Italy. This development had largely passed England by.
There spoken drama had been one of the main sources of entertainment.
It was not before the 1670s that operas were performed in England,
and even then this did not take root immediately or lead to the establishment
of a tradition of home-grown operas. Instead the companies which were
active in the field of spoken drama reacted with a new form, the semi-opera.
It was an extension of a form which had been popular since the early
17th century: the masque, a combination of spoken text and music.
A semi-opera was divided into various episodes or acts, and included
vocal items, dances, instrumental music and scenic effects. There
was a clear division between characters who spoke and those who sang
Semi-operas were often adaptations of plays, especially those of William
Shakespeare. The first successful semi-opera was The Tempest
which was performed in 1674. Among the composers who contributed to
this piece were Matthew Locke, Pelham Humfrey and John Banister. This
was not the signal for regular performances of such works, partly
for financial reasons - the machinery which was needed for the scenic
effects made performances somehting of a trial. The death of Matthew
Locke who played a key role in this genre also held things back. At
the end of the century the genre came to life again with semi-operas
The Fairy Queen was first performed in May 1692 at the Queen's
Theatre. It was based on Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Night's
Dream. The original play was strongly adapted: it was abridged,
scenes were arranged in a different order and some characters were
omitted. On the other hand, the librettist added verses which Purcell
was to set to music. The work is divided into five acts; the characters
differ from one act to the other; no character appears in more than
one act. This indicates that the story of the play is not directly
linked to the music. Without the spoken text it is impossible to follow
the story, unless one is familiar with Shakespeare's play.
The version which is mostly performed and recorded is the second one
of 1693; that also goes for the present recording. In the first version
there was no music in Act 1; in 1693 three pieces were performed during
this act, a duet, the 'Scene of the Drunken Poet' and a 'first act
tune', a jig. In Act 3 a solo was included, the song 'Ye gentle spirits
of the air', and in Act 5 'The Plaint' which has become one of Purcell's
most famous vocal compositions.
This live recording was originally released by the Italian label Arts
and was given a positive review here by Jonathan Woolf (review).
Although I agree with him on some issues - the quality of the orchestra,
for instance - I can't quite share his assessment. The fact that the
audience is so quiet should be considered a virtue - it is quite annoying
when every aria is greeted with loud applause in a live opera recording.
However, here it is different: this semi-opera is entertainment, and
one may expect the audience to show its appreciation. The fact that
nothing of this kind happens - apart from the applause at the end
- is probably due to the audience being Italian and following the
text only through super-titles in the theatre where this performance
took place. It is also likely that they were not that familiar with
the original play.
There could be another explanation. This performance may have taken
place in a theatre - the booklet doesn't tell us whether it was scenic
or not - but it isn't very theatrical. I never had the feeling of
being actually there. It is a sequence of pieces sung and played,
but that is it. Too little has been made of those moments which were
definitely written to make audiences laugh, such as the scene of the
drunken poet in Act 1 (Bundy) and the dialogue between Coridon and
Mopsa in Act 3 (Bundy and Towers). In my collection I have the recording
under the direction of William Christie (Harmonia Mundi), and there
the performers make much more of these episodes. Under Dantone's direction
they are rather stiff and unimaginative. The more serious parts come
off much better, such as the end of Act 2, with the entrance of the
Night, and also the solos of the four seasons in Act 4.
The solo parts are different in quality. Andrew Carwood makes a bit
of a slow start: 'Come, all ye songsters' is hesitant and his voice
is too weak, but 'One charming night' and 'Thus the gloomy world'
are much better. Rebecca Outram is fine, and I enjoyed her singing
more than that of Gillian Keith. Carolyn Sampson is largely disappointing.
'The Plaint' is really spoilt by her wide and incessant vibrato. 'See,
even Night herself is here' (Act 2) is a little better, but that is
about the only one of her contributions which I could appreciate.
Michael Bundy may be disappointing in the two scenes mentioned before,
but there is nothing wrong with his singing from a technical and stylistic
point of view.
On balance I am not very impressed, despite the good things which
this set has to offer. I most admired the orchestral playing. Dantone
and his players are Italians, but they don't make the mistake of forcing
this music into an Italian straitjacket. Strong contrasts as one may
expect in music by Italian composers would be completely inappropriate
in Purcell's music. However, if you look for a recording of Purcell's
The Fairy Queen, this seems not to be first choice.
Johan van Veen