Thursday 25 September 2014

Fairy Queen at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea

Eloise Irving and John Lattimore in Bury Court Opera's production of Purcell's Fairy Queen
Eloise Irving and John Lattimore in Bury Court Opera's
production of Purcell's Fairy Queen
Henry Purcell The Fairy Queen; Hopkins, Iriving, Philis, Pappioannou, El-Bushra, Lattimore, Webb, Latham, Smith, cond. William Vann; Royal Hospital, Chelsea
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 24 2014
Star rating: 4.5

Enchanting account of the music from Purcell's semi opera with cast from Bury Court Opera

The first concert in this Autumn's season at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, on Wednesday 24 September 2014, presented the musical numbers from Purcell's semi-opera The Fairy Queen in association with Bury Court Opera which staged with work in March 2014. As at Bury Court, Purcell's music was presented without the intervening spoken dialogue. The cast was based on that of the recent performances of the work by Bury Court Opera, with sopranos Kirsty Hopkins, Eloise Irving and Flore Philis, mezzo-soprano Lilly Pappaioannou, counter-tenors Magid El-Bushra and John Lattimore, tenor David Webb, baritone Richard Latham and bass Aidan Smith. William Vann (Director of Music at the Royal Hospital Chelsea) directed the Wren Players from the harpsichord.

The music was presented complete except for the omission of the Second Music, the instrumental pieces originally played as the audience was assembling. The cast were joined by three extra singers from the Royal Hospital Choir, Helen Ashby, William Petter, Nicolas Ashby, and everyone sang the choruses. They were accompanied by the small instrumental group of the Wren Players, with just single strings but including theorbo as well as harpsichord. Solos were sung from a podium behind the orchestra, and singers did not always use scores.

The solos were allocated, presumably, according to the needs in the drama of the original staging. Whilst one or two singers seemed a little under used, there is no doubt that thanks to the original staging what we got was a highly engaged and vividly involving performance. All the soloists sang with a high degree of technical skill, but also a great deal of charm and delightful feel for Purcell's music. Each solo or ensemble was aptly projected and the whole performance carried the audience along. This was quite an achievement as Purcell's music for The Fairy Queen is quite disparate, simply a sequence of lovely pieces lacking in dramatic coherence. Frankly, it does not make complete sense but then again neither does the complete semi-opera and at Bury Court I gather they performed only the music but re-ordered into a dramatic whole (set in a school).

Vann and the Wren Players started things off with a crisply lively account of the First Music and Overture. Though we had only single strings, the playing was full of vitality and beautifully lithe so that the orchestral items had a richness and depth to them. Phrasing was nicely flowing, pointed but with an apposite smoothness (no nasty bulges). After the interval they gave us a full toned account of the Symphony which opens Act IV, and throughout there were some lovely, alert dance movements and poised solos.

Soprano Kirsty Hopkins and baritone Richard Latham opened with a fluently engaging account of Come, let us leave the town whilst bass Aidan Smith was a delightfully drunken poet with sopranos Eloise Irving and Flore Philis as characterful fairies.

Kirsty Hopkins sang Night's solo from Act 2 with fine-grained tone and a sense of legato which sometimes got the better of her words. She brought perky rhythms, fluid style and focussed tone to Spring's solo from Act 3 and was an equal delight in Thus happy and free and Hark! the Echoing Air (from Act 4). Also in Act 4 Hopkins joined Flore Philis for an enchanting account of Sure the dull God of Marriage with pin-sharp passagework which led into the scene with Aidan Smith's firm toned Hymen, all three showing a strong sense of the words.

 Eloise Irving's pert charm and fine technique made me want to get up and dance with a poised account of the Fairies Dance and a fluid and engaging I am come to lock all fast (both from Act 2). In Act 3 she sang If love's a sweet passion with a real bitter-sweet feel for Purcell's music, and returned with When I have often heard sung with a nice sense of phrase. In Act 4 Hark, how all Things in one Sound rejoice had rhythmic charm and was beautifully put over

French soprano Flore Philis showed some lovely passagework and engagement with the text in an alert performance of Ye gentle spirits of the Air (from Act 2). In Act 4, she was engaged and stylish in Now the Night is chas'd away, whilst in Thrice Happy Lovers from Act 5 she was not only technically secure, but you really felt that she meant it.

Counter-tenor John Lattimore was suitably languid and evocative with Mystery's aria from Act 2 and used his soft-grained voice to shape A thousand, thousand ways (from Act 3). Anglo-Sudanese counter-tenor Magid El-Bushra was used for one single item, The Plaint in Act 4 but he sang to such profoundly devastating effect that it was worth waiting for. El-Bushra brought an interesting tonal edge to his voice which he used with strongly expressive intent.

Greek mezzo-soprano Lilly Pappanioannou was used in a number of ways, with her rich toned lower register being made much of. In Act 3, she was a female Mopsa of great charm, rather sexy and very funny, paired with Richard Latham's characterful and equally funny Corydon. Pappanioannou joined counter-tenor John Lattimore in Act 4 for the duet Let the Fire and the clarions with Pappanioannou taking the lower part to lovely effect; this could have become just a stunt but she sang so musically that it worked. Pappaniouannou charmed also in Summer's solo in Act 3 and Yes Daphne, in your looks I find from Act 4, with an expressive feel for the words,

Tenor David Webb displayed a lovely smooth lyric tenor voice with neat passagework giving us a stylish Come all ye songsters (from Act 2). he was a little subdued in Phoebus's entry in Act 3 but he sang Autumn's solo with a lyrical depth of tone and produced some nice trumpet tones (and good passagework) for Thus the gloomy world (from Act 4)

Aiden Smith closed Act 2 as Sleep, combining words and music into haunting magic and was equally impressive as Winter at the end of Act 3

This was a performance of real enchantment and all the young singers showed skill, engagement and a real feel for Purcell's distinctive combination of words and music. The full staging at Bury Court must have been a real delight but even shorn of the action Purcell's music created a bit of magic.

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