Sunday 13 February 2011

Fairy Queen at the Queen Elizabeth Hall

When originally produced, Purcell's The Fairy Queen was the equivalent of a collaboration between the Royal Opera and the National Theatre with sets which would have been a credit to Cecil B de Mille. In its time it was a popular and fashionable show, raising enthusiasm seen nowadays in musicals rather than more high-brow art.

The problem from our point of view, is that Purcell's music has only a tangential relationship to the play's plot. And of course, the restoration play is only vaguely reminiscent of Shakespeare's original. No amount of research can recapture the original spirit in modern performances. We learn that the scene with the Chinese Man and Woman makes reference to Queen Mary's passion for Chinese vases and orange trees which were King Williams symbol, hence the whole scene would be seen as a compliment to their Wedding Anniversary. This doesn't help us in modern performance, where we struggle to make the finale fit our modern day concepts of how a work should be coherently constructed.

Perhaps we wouldn't struggle with it if Purcell's music wasn't so great. The music, some 2 hours of it, forms a substantial item in its own right but does not quite make a satisfying whole, consisting as it does of a series of disjoint masques with linking numbers. Benjamin Britten attempted to solve the problem by re-ordering and re-shaping the music, but this sort of interventionist approach dropped out of fashion with the period performance movement. Now Philip Pickett and the New London Consort have had another go. At the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Friday they performed The Fairy Queen in a production by the Mexican director Mauricio Garcia Lozano.

Pickett has re-ordered Purcell's music to create a more satisfying and coherent whole. And Lozano has applied a new plot to this. The results could have been rather precious. 9 singers and 5 circus artist come together and travel to Arcadia, after a degree of social and erotic interaction they pair off happily. It is debatable whether Pickett's new ordering of the music is any more satisfactory than before, but I hold no torch for performing the piece exactly as originally; so that if it worked for the New London Consort, then fine.

The programme included detailed back story for all the characters, who were modern day archetypes (the shop girl, the career girl etc.). But frankly, we could just as well have been watching a group of people undergoing some sort of new-age group therapy. The sheer preciousness of the concept could have been annoying, but Pickett and his cast performed Purcell's music with such conviction and with some style, that little else mattered.

Lozano's production utilised suitcases to provide structure and context on stage (there was no set as such). Within this there were some striking moments and some supremely beautiful ones. Ed Lyon's beautiful account of If Love's a sweet passion was followed by I press her hand gently sung by a small group of singers sitting casually at the back of the stage. Simple, but somehow moving.

The main roles were sung by Joanne Lunn, Ed Lyon and Michael George, supported by Dana Marbach, Faye Newton, Christopher Robson, Tim Travers-Brown, Joseph Cornwell and Simon Grant.

Lunn gave a stand out performance, with Juno, Night and the Plaint; this latter performed almost as a piece of catharsis after therapy, which luckily did the piece no harm. Lyon was Autumn and the Chinese Man, bringing what is quite a strong and vibrant voice to bear in a stylish way. Veteran Bass Michael George was of course the drunken Pot, Sleep, Winter and Hymen. George's voice is perhaps not as resonant as it was once but he retains a sense of style in this music, a good range and a strong stage presence.

Dana Marbach and Faye Newton divide the remaining soprano solos, each impressive and appealing with Marbach as a glamorous Femme Fatale singing Mysterie and Spring. Newton was a soprano Mopsa to Simon Grant's Corydon in a straight-forward non-camp version of the duet. Elsewhere Grant was a slightly disappointing Phoebus

Veteran counter-tenor Christopher Robson turned in a hauntingly beautiful solo as Secresie. Timothy Travers Brown was a slightly unlikely Summer, performing the solos as a gay school teacher in shorts. Joseph Cornwell as a middle aged biker provided strong support.

Instead of dancers, Lozano used circus artists from the Circus Space (Kaveh Rahnama, Lauren Hendry, Jose Triguero Delgado, Tink Bruce, Boldo Janchivdorj). These 4 were embedded with the singers forming a seamless blend of characters. The acrobatics proved surprisingly evocative and effective in the dance movements. Never have I seen juggling so poetic.

The singers in the ensemble formed the chorus, sometimes singing en masse and sometimes just 4 voices. Pickett's instrumental ensemble was similarly small, just 1 instrument per part, a total of 15 players.

The performance was surprisingly involving, with all singers contributing stylish accounts of Purcell's music. Whilst one could fault Lozano's production for the preciousness of the concept, the main sign of a good production is surely the strength of the performances the director gets from the singers. on this basis Lozano and Pickett's Fairy Queen was a great success indeed.

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