Friday 25 July 2014

Purcell with a French accent - The Fairy Queen from Les Arts Florissants

Purcell - The Fairy Queen - Christie - Harmonia Mundi Purcell: The Fairy Queen; Les Arts Florissants, William Christie; Harmonia Mundi
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 17 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Re-issue of William Christie's 1989 recording of Purcell's opera, with a fine line-up of soloists

Harmonia Mundi has re-issued William Christie's recording of the music from Purcell's The Fairy Queen, recorded in 1989 with Les Arts Florissants. For the vocal contributions Christie uses a vocal ensemble full of all talents, including Nancy Argenta, Lynne Dawson, Veronique Gens, Sandrine Piau, Charles Daniels, Jean-Paul Fouchecourt, Thomas Randle. As is commonplace, the music is recorded complete but without any spoken dialogue.

The Fairy Queen belongs to a relatively small genre which we generally know as semi-opera, but which Purcell and his contemporaries knew as dramatic opera. This hybrid genre, which combined spoken and sung drama, was popular in London in the 17th century. Commentators generally attribute this to the strength of the English spoken theatre and the lack of subsidy for the opera. But I suspect that there was also an element of the English simply liking this type of entertainment mixing the spoken and sung. As late as the early 19th century, Carl Maria von Weber was complaining about the amount of spoken dialogue in Oberon, the opera commissioned for Covent Garden.

As originally produced The Fairy Queen was a huge undertaking with 16 speaking roles in addition to the singers, over two hours of music (if you include the act tunes played whilst the audience was coming into the theatre), plus extensive spoken scenes. In full form, it makes for a long evening in the theatre.

Regarding the spoken text, this was based on Shakespeare but heavily cut, re-ordered and re-written to conform to contemporary taste. This was common at the time, the poet Dryden produced his own version of Anthony and Cleopatra, entitled All for Love as a way of making Shakespeare proper and seemly. But I think that it is important to remember that the original spectators did not regard this as drama; this was entertainment. The Fairy Queen was far more Ziegfield Follies, than Carousel.

Playing the music on its own enables us to appreciate Purcell's genius without having to sit through the dialogue, but I find the lack of context a little disturbing. Frankly, I still find Benjamin Britten's re-arrangement of the work rather satisfying as the composer cut and shuffled the movements to create a dramatically coherent whole. In our pernickety completist age, we find such an approach less satisfactory.

William Christie performs the piece complete (including all the music added for the 1693 performances), so that we start with the act tunes, music written to be talked over. Christie launches into the First Musick in a fast and furious manner, and his whole performance has a vividly up-front feel to it. I suspect that the William Christie of 30 years later might have taken a more relaxed view, but there is no doubt that this is a brilliant performance of brilliant music.

When talking about Christie's performances of English baroque music, notably Handel, people often mention the French accent that he brings to the performance. Here, there is no question that a French accent fits very appositely. The music at the court of Charles II was very influenced by the French Court, Charles having passed time there during the Interregnum and France was used as a source of expertise for music enterprise. And listening to this disc makes you realise quite how much debt Purcell's flexible sequences of solos, choruses and dances have to the music of composers like Lully.

As with other discs in this Harmonia Mundi Gold series, the actual information about who sings what has been omitted. There is an ensemble of singers, 21 in all, who sing the choruses and from whom the soloists are chosen. The ensemble includes singers of a variety of nationalities, as on other recordings of English baroque music Christie does not just use Anglophone singers. Frankly we get a variety of accent, all comprehensible and creditable. But not everyone will be comfortable with the slightly odd consonants and diphthongs which some singers use. What has to be said though is that all the performers are tuned in to the way Purcell uses text in his music.

The CD set includes an excellent article filling in background to Purcell and The Fairy Queen, plus full texts.

As with all recordings from this source, all aspects of performance are highly stylish. I am sure that some people will listen to Christie's approach and think it highly coloured, but it works on its own terms. This is a highly recommendable version of The Fairy Queen. Anyone who wants to experience how the piece works in the theatre is advised to dig out the DVD of Jonathan Kent's production for Glyndebourne Opera, which combined music with a very full version of the spoken text and a highly dramatic staging. For myself, I still go back to John Eliot Gardiner's recording with a fine ensemble of anglophone singers.

Henry Purcell (1659 - 1695) - The Fairy Queen [128.42]
Les Arts Florissants
William Christie (conductor)
Recorded July 1989, Theatre de la Colonne de Miramax (Bouches-de-Rhone)
Harmonia Mundi Gold HMG 501 308 09 2CD's [128.42]

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