Here is a review of our recent concert, 'The Fairy Queen' performed in St Nicolas' Church, Newbury:
Sparkling Sound with a Deep Heart
In an evening shot through with magic, Purcell’s Fairy Queen delighted its audience at St Nicolas’ Church. How do you create an entertainment that is informal and yet highly professional, with a vast emotional range? Firstly, take a talented choir with an inspirational director; add instrumental musicians of a very high calibre and top quality vocal soloists - and it will just happen. What is more, they will make it look easy. Last night’s production of the famous masques had an extra: a radiant Titania (Suzanne Debney) and Oberon (Patrick Craig) providing the linking passages from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Often omitted, this spoken element gave a strong narrative thread which enhanced and made sense of the fantastical musical interludes. 17th century audiences would have been familiar with the mixture of solo, dance and chorus which constituted each masque, the whole being loosely based on the well-known story of The Fairy Queen and her quarrel with Oberon. Nearly three centuries later it is difficult to know exactly how these would have been performed but The Cecilia Consort’s lively version seemed both original and authentic. Described as ‘the result of continuous alteration from an anonymous adaptation’ it was an interpretation which would surely have pleased Purcell.
From the outset, the sensitive ensemble playing of the Cecilia Players established the musical quality, the incisive trumpets and timpani adding a sense of ceremony and celebration. Fearlessly, the choir’s sopranos soared over their opening high notes supported by well-balanced lower parts and tight rhythmic control. With meticulous attention to detail, the drama began.
In Act One, The ‘Drunken Poet’ (Dan Couchman) managed to convey his plight in action and voice as he peered sadly into his empty tankard. Tormented by two silver-voiced fairies (the good one sung by Judith Orpen and the evil one, with wicked relish, by Lucy Makin) it was no wonder he stuttered. The 17th century reference may remain unsolved but last night’s audience loved the scene for itself.
Throughout, the story-telling was clear: the chorus comments on the action serving to highlight and explain or capture the mood. ‘May the God of Wit inspire’ sang Jeremy Wright, Dan Couchman and Grey Choules in Act 2. Their nicely blended singing must have had the desired effect. After some wonderfully sensitive trumpet playing in the instrumental ‘Echo’, the chorus joined Janet Coxwell in ‘Sing while we trip it’. Their ‘No nothing offend our Fairy Queen’ was light and brilliant.
The soloists then developed the rich mixture of themes: night, mystery, secrecy, sleep, the changing seasons, marriage, and death. Jan not only directed the choir and conducted the performance but also sang further solos. As ‘Night’, her beautiful sustained tone caught the nocturnal mood; as Juno she was a goddess and in the duet ‘Turn thine eyes’ with Helen Parker the skills of both singers brought Purcell’s word painting to life. Helen was a late substitute for Kirsten Offer but her wonderful voice, her knowledge of the music and her sympathy with the other singers made her a perfect choice. In her heart-rending solo aria The Plaint, with its echoes of Dido’s Lament, the emotion was beautifully controlled; it was difficult to believe that she produced such a mellifluous tone whilst suffering from a sore throat.
There was so much to praise in this performance, not least the impeccable continuo playing where the rapport was evident: the singers being supported and complemented by the fine instrumental work in the solos. This was particularly true when Patrick Craig’s limpid counter-tenor enhanced the other-worldliness of ‘Secrecy’ in the haunting aria ‘One charming night’. If this all sounds rather serious, then as a counterpoint we have only to think of him as Mopsa complete with dress and wig in the brilliant double act with Dan Couchman.
Anne Ware and Chris Gwynn (as Bottom and Robin) joined Titania and Oberon in the play cast, bringing their own characterisation to the parts, Bottom managing some wry expressions beneath her outlandish donkey head. Jeremy Wright and Diana Hughes were introduced in Act V as a Chinese man and woman. Having to wait so long for your solo can be nerve-wracking but they were as fresh as if they had just arrived. Whether or not the Chinese element was a reference to Queen Mary’s china collection may never be known for sure but it certainly added colour and dash. Mike Ananin also had to wait until Act V to sing alone but his stately singing, as Hymen rekindling his torch, was measured and secure. The fact that the many cameos were ably performed by members of the choir shows how versatile and accomplished this group is. It was a truly memorable concert, performed to a very high standard with a sparkle in the singing and more than a dash of fairy dust in the acting.
You can listen to excerpts from previous concerts with the following links:
Bob Chilcott Little Jazz Mass: March 2014 concert in St Nicolas' Church, Newbury
Paul Mealor Ubi Caritas: November 2012 concert in Douai Abbey
Duruflé Four Motets: February 2013 concert in St George's Church, Wash Common