Monday, February 16, 2009

The Fairy Queen by Henry Purcell

Review by Rodney Punt

Conductor: Martin Haselböck
Lisa Saffer, soprano
Catherine Webster, soprano
Michael Dean, bass
The Concord Ensemble

Saturday, February 14, 2009, 8 p.m. -- Zipper Concert Hall
--Colburn School of Performing Arts, Los Angeles
Sunday, February 15, 2009, 4 p.m. -- The Broad Stage
--Santa Monica Community College, Santa Monica

Musica Angelica’s January gambit on the theme of Love must have shocked gentle Cupid. Lovers either died of rejection or stabbed to death their two-timing partners. (See LA Opus review, January 12). But fear not, Love’s back on track this Valentine’s Day with nothing more serious between amorous pairs than a little too much drink, some temporary amnesia, and a couple of mistaken identities to sort out before order is restored. Or so it goes in Henry Purcell’s masque, The Fairy Queen, a loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with music tailor-made for Restoration period citizenry bent on flirting, foreplay and fun.

As one of the last of Purcell’s remarkable stage-works before his untimely death in 1695, The Fairy Queen remains a pinnacle in English music. Purcell set nearly sixty musical numbers, mostly vocal, with new words from an unknown author (lamentably, none of Shakespeare’s are in the masque) to be inserted between scenes in the abridged play. Today, only Purcell’s music is performed, and coming in at well over two hours with intermission it's a full program.

Shakespeare hadn’t stinted on the number of his protagonists to begin with, but Purcell and his literary adapter apparently concluded that nothing succeeds like excess, and populated their musical version with a gaggle of exotic, undoubtedly crowd-pleasing hitch-hikers: a Chinese Man and Woman, an Indian boy, monkeys that dance, Juno the Goddess of Nature, Hymen the God of Marriage, a couple of haymakers named Coridon and Mopsa, and then Night, Mystery, Secrecy and Sleep, as well as Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. One might conclude the poet of such a menagerie to be in a drunken state when conjuring them. Oh, I almost forgot, there actually is a character named The Drunken Poet.

Space doesn’t allow, nor will your patience endure, a full comparison of Shakespeare’s endearing comedy with the superfluous add-on action in The Fairy Queen, produced about a century after the play. As in Shakespeare, some ditzy lovers act (if not look) an awful lot like us and cavort through Love’s many games and guises, but happily end up their adventures with proper partners. The spirit, if not the literal plot, of A Midsummer Night’s Dream remains intact.

What holds our interest more than The Fairy Queen’s over-stuffed antics is the music’s successful connection with Shakespearian intentions. Young love is portrayed in music wildly comic and meltingly sweet. In a state of frenzied confusion, the internal compasses of lads and lasses spin madly in search of Love's True North. The Fairy Queen takes them on a fantastic musical voyage to magical places where even angels fear to tread.

Purcell’s synthesis of English and Continental musical styles was impressive, and Fairy Queen abounds with pleasing melodies, surprising harmonies, rumbling counterpoint, and varied orchestral colorings. Most uniquely, however, its settings of the English language proclaim a powerful and confident world culture emerging in the 17th Century. If Shakespeare gave modern English its literary voice early on, Purcell gave the language its musical voice as the century closed.

With vocal music at the service of natural syntax, one hears, for example, frequent sharp accents on the first syllable (“No′thing offend our Fairy Queen”), the natural jaggedness of which Purcell deliciously hammers home time and again. At once perfectly apt and yet idiosyncratic, Purcell’s vocal lines pose something of a challenge for singers used to Italianate musical lines that smooth over irregular phrases. Fortunately, Musica Angelica’s singers were fully prepared for the demands of the score.

Three billed soloists were assigned a variety of roles, none of which, regrettably, were specified in the minimalist program notes, so the audience had to intuit them. Members of the excellent Concord Ensemble - constituted here with eight members, two each sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses - also took on solo outings as needed. (I attended both performances.)

Soprano Lisa Saffer is an ideal Purcell singer with a tone of shimmering silver. She filled the halls with a rich variety of characterizations, aided considerably by flawless enunciation. At turns frivolous and pensive, and switching moods on a hairpin from scolding a drunken poet to evoking the still of the night, or later chasing it away in favor of the day, Saffer’s was a riveting presence and a luxuriant sound throughout the evening, perhaps most hauntingly in “See even Night herself is here.”

Substituting late for the originally scheduled Andrea Brown, Catherine Webster deployed her light, bell-like tone ably, preserving her most involved energy for her final number, the jubilant “Hark! Now the echoing air.”

Bass-baritone Michael Dean lent canny humor, drawing from his stage experience in opera, to his rendition of The Drunken Poet’s “Fill up the Bowl.” This was one of the best musical inebriations since Dean Martin's glory days with songs like “That Little Ole Wine Drinker Me.” In a more serious mood, Dean’s “Hush, no more, be silent all” was the essence of repose itself. Earning his billing as a bass-baritone, Dean produced an attractive, bright tone with excellent articulation throughout the wide ranging tessitura called for in his various roles.

Concord Ensemble tenor Pablo Corá should also have been billed with the three soloists, as he nearly stole the show in his several outings. Singing male alto (“haute-contre”), his voice tone reminds us of Russell Oberlin, who, in his illustrious career as a pioneer in the early music movement, sang in that nose-bleeding high range in real voice, not the falsetto that is often associated with the countertenor range. Popping up like a peripatetic Puck all over the stage in the course of the evening, Corá was notably hilarious in a drag role with Dean, the dialogue between characters Coridon and Mopsa, “Now the maids and the men.”

The Musica Angelica Orchestra acquitted itself very well in both performances, gaining sharpness particularly in the second one at The Broad Stage. Plaudits go to the trumpets, and especially principal Kathryn Adduci, to the oboes, and to the theorbo and guitar work of Daniel Zuluaga. Balances were generally excellent, especially at The Broad, though in full orchestra passages one might wish for more volume from the strings.

Holding sway over the sprawling forces (everything being relative in early music) Martin Haselböck’s control of his musical minions was masterful. He stands a foot taller than the next most altitudinous performer, which on this evening bestowed a perch of Olympian perspective over the midsummer foolishness taking place under his benevolent arms. Haselböck usually favors tempi that skip along at a fast clip, and this evening was no exception when the occasion called for it. But he also seemed more relaxed than usual, in the best sense. He often let his soloists and their continuo compliments take over and move through their paces at their own good time. As a result, there were moments where musical time seemed to stop in those magical woods outside Athens, the atmosphere wrapped in a charmed stillness.

This performance of The Fairy Queen, always commendable and at times even inspired, may be the best - and perhaps the only - one we will hear in these parts for some time. Musica Angelica deserves our grateful appreciation. Knowing what the original fully-staged conception called for, however, with Shakespeare’s abridged play within it and all those colorful and foolish characters interacting in costume and on a fanciful set, one's appetite is whetted for more. Performance length and budgets make such a prospect a distant midsummer dream at best, but we can always hope.


A note on The Broad Stage:

Time to pop the cork and break out the champagne. The good folks at The Broad Stage have fixed the acoustical problems that plagued the first months of the theater's operation. Having experienced both the Zipper Hall and The Broad Stage performances of The Fairy Queen this past weekend, it is with the greatest pleasure and relief that I can report we have two superb chamber-proportioned performing spaces for music. At the risk of speaking heresy, the sound at The Broad Stage was even livelier than that of the Zipper. But then again I was sitting in a lucky seat for the Valentine's weekend: F-14!

In conversation with director Dale Franzen at intermission on Sunday afternoon, she told me that things acoustical were "settling in" nicely at the Broad. That included the staff's learning how to best deploy the stage and ceiling deflectors. I had reported earlier about problems in that area, but also cautioned patience. Like tuning a British sports car, working out who gets what side of the bed in a new marriage, or waiting for an economic stimulus to take effect, the acoustics of a new hall take time and patience. But still, a bunch of theater insiders are breathing a lot easier now. Whew!

The work of musical ensembles like Musica Angelica becomes both easier and more focused when a hall works well. From now on, the placement of the musicians on stage will be the primary consideration in putting over performances to best acoustical advantage. We can all rejoice this issue was resolved in time for The Fairy Queen.

1 comment:

  1. Rodney,

    I enjoyed your reviews and articles. I especially enjoyed the Billy Childs article.

    Billy was the pianist in the USC Jazz ensemble when I played in the group 1976-1980. He is amazing.

    Keep up the excellent writing.

    Steven Ravaglioli


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