Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Henry Purcell's The Fairy Queen

There are many music composers who died well before their time, and thus deprived us of volumes of great music. Mozart (35), Bellini (34), Schubert (31), Pergolesi (26), George Butterworth (31) and Guillaume Lekeu (24). One of the greatest losses was Henry Purcell (36). By coincidence, I have just listened to two performances of Purcell's “opera” The Fairy Queen; everyone sings excerpts and the best known numbers, but complete performances are a little less common – live performances probably even rarer since the work is part theatre (based on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream), part entertainment, part opera.

I started with a 1970 recording conducted by Benjamin Britten with an all-star English cast of the time including an excellent Jennifer Vyvyan and John Shirley-Quirk. Plus Peter Pears, inevitably. The work is played with affection, but has many cuts and the 1970 playing does sound idiosyncratic, even to my original-instrument prejudiced ears. Then on to William Christie (1989) with a mainly Franco-American cast including Nancy Agenta, Lynne Dawson, VĂ©ronique Gens and Sandrine Piau. This recording was made following a staging in Aix-en-Provence and sounds much more alive and theatrical compared with Britten in bleak Aldeburgh. Lynne Dawson's singing of the celebrated “Oh let me weep” is intensely moving in Christie's recording. Les Arts Florissants are well up to scratch. Two hours of first-class entertainment. There is not too much in common between the order of numbers on the two recordings: Christie has five acts, Britten four parts. The Chinese garden and Chinese men and women have vanished from Britten's version (maybe he, like me, could not work out what Chinese landscapes had to do with Shakespeare's play). This is not an opera with two or three principal roles; a strong overall cast is required. I much prefer Christie's tutti choir to Britten's more conventional Ambrosian Opera Chorus; a full-scale chorus in this work sounds just out of scale with the rest.

To check my impressions I have just ordered a third version of the work: the Accademia Bizantina directed by Ottavio Dantone, with an English cast. He seems to use the same five act version as Christie, and we also get the Chinese contingent. No doubt a report in due course, but no one can have too much Purcell.

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