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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 and danced.
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 by Purcell.
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

See also review by Jonathan Woolf