14 Oct 2016

Academy of Ancient Music: The Fairy Queen at the Barbican Hall

At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.

Of course, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is itself a virtuoso example of the particular illusion which is theatre. And, it’s all too much for the characters charged with putting on a play within the play: Pyramus and Thisbe. The Mechanicals, with Bottom at the helm, have ‘never labour’d in their minds till now’ and struggle with the problem of what to include and what to omit, what to show and what to leave to the imagination. They come up with solutions which are paradoxically both pragmatic and ludicrous.

Directing the Academy of Ancient Music’s semi-staged performance of Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen at the Barbican Hall, Daisy Evans has confronted the same problems as Bottom and his fellow guilds-men. As she says in a programme note, ‘we’re creating it as we go along. Each piece is formed from the inside out, and everyone is on hand to help out. You walk into a creative space - an empty stage, light everywhere, costume wagons, hangers, wire and rope … Where will the theatrics go? What could unfold before your eyes? All will be revealed?’

The Fairy Queen made its first appearance in 1692 at the Queen’s Theatre in London; a lavish staging, in the century-long masque tradition, it mixed spoken drama, song, dance and spectacle. Evans notes that ‘The Fairy Queen is, basically, the incidental music to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; without the play behind it, we’re left with a sequence of perfectly formed masques’. But, in reinstating the play, or ‘a’ play, and bringing ‘Theatre’ to the fore, she risks pushing the music into the shadows - ironically so, given that the elevation of the musical element of the masque was one of Purcell’s greatest achievements.

During the prefatory Aire, Rondeau and Act 1 Overture, Evans leads us into a rehearsal, the Barbican Hall’s wide open stage inviting us to knock down the fourth wall. The performance space is littered with ladders, lights, luvvies in techies’ overalls, and musicians in mufti. Stage-hands in hard-hats and clutch clipboards and brooms dash about, dodging cones and wires, perplexed and purposeless: one grabs a programme from a front-row audience member, as if in search of guidance as to what’s supposed to come next. A penguin-suited singer arrives but is repeatedly denied the chance to deliver his aria; a late-arriving violinist wanders through the orchestra searching for her seat, before being briskly escorted from the stage. Music director Richard Egarr may have been sporting evening-dress, but he was hardly a figure of authority amid this hammy anarchy. And, the score was muffled by the aural paraphernalia: rustling paper, stamping feet, shifting props.

The Fairy Queen contains no musical number based on a Shakespearean text but the atmosphere of the Dream is retained in Purcell’s musical scenes: for example, the boisterous fairies invigorate the Masque of the Drunken Poet in the opening Act, while their magic adds a sheen of mystery to Act 2’s Masque of Sleep; moreover, the Act 3 dialogue between Corydon and Mopsa is reminiscent of the rustics’ inane antics.

Evans fills in the ‘gaps’ in Purcell’s masque with her own meta-theatrical narrative, the parts of which never quite cohere into a whole. The soloists are ‘cast’ as stage manager (Iestyn Davies), diva (Rowan Pierce) and personal assistant (Gwilym Bowen). The ‘gags’ are plentiful: characters tussle possessively over music scores, or frantically flick through sheaths of notes to find their place; singers are arranged in height order; arias are sung to characters who clamp their ears shut. Timothy West wanders languidly about, a morose Lear-cum-Prospero, delivering random nuggets of Shakespeare; in Act 4, his amplified voice booms from the balcony. Shakespeare’s play testifies, albeit ironically, to the transformative power of the imagination; so, Evans’ ushers morph into thespians, sheet music flutter into birds, and wire coat hangers twist into angels’ wings. There were moments when I was amused and entertained, and moments when the theatrical clich├ęs - actors entering by the aisles, the spot-lights turning on ‘us’, torches turning into stars - began to grate.

The cast seemed to enjoy themselves, though, and were unanimously and whole-heartedly committed to Evans’ project. Ironically, such faux ‘spontaneity’ only works when it is meticulously prepared and executed. And, the vocal and instrumental performances were stellar, with Richard Egarr’s light-fingered, witty continuo - fey and fantastical - leading the way. The aquamarine-tinted ‘Dance of the Followers of Night’ which closes Act 2 was deliciously enchanting, as if the fairies had permeated the score itself, while the Act 3 hornpipe was punchy and proud. And, the Chorus sang with tremendous power and expertly unanimous dynamic ebbs and flows.

Rowan Pierce’s soprano was pure and well-centred. As ‘Night’ in Act 2, her subtly detailed phrasing evoked a moving sense of wonder and stillness, enhanced by lighting director Jake Wiltshire’s translucent pink gleam and the beautiful violin accompaniment. Pierce’s Act 5 ‘Plaint’ wove voice and solo violin in a beautiful chaconne-tapestry. Mhairi Lawson was a vibrant ‘Mystery’ in the same Act 2 scene and later, in Act 4, produced a line of floating freshness in Spring’s aria, ‘Thus the ever grateful Spring/ Does her yearly tribute bring’, accompanied by baroque guitar and theorbo.

Ashley Riches’ riotous Drunken Poet - ‘I’m drunk as I live boys, drunk’ - was blessed with a wonderful swagger of demeanour and voice; his confession of poverty was couched in such soft sweetness, that he won our sympathy despite his bluff buffoonery. Iestyn Davies quite frequently found himself at the lower end of his countertenor range, but evinced grace and nobility as ‘Secrecy’ in Act 2; and later, as Mopsa, his superb vocal control shone through the tomfoolery with Riches’ Coridon, as for example in the powerfully projected melisma, ‘Then lordlike you rule,/ And laugh at the fool’. Their Act 3 number ended in farcical fashion, with Davies hoisted aloft in Riches’ amatory embrace before, refusing the hand of friendship offered, he escaped in haste. In the final Act, Davies demonstrated intelligent musicianship and vocal flexibility, modulating the colour of his voice according to the harmonic shifts and implications of the accompaniment in the Chinese Man’s ‘Yes, Daphne, in your looks I find/ The charms by which my heart’s betray’d’.

Tenor Charles Daniels and Gwilym Bowen joined in joyful duet in Act 4, ‘Let the fifes and the clarions/ And shrill trumpets sound,/ And the arch of high heaven/ The clangour resound’; their lines resounded with rhythmic strength to match Purcell’s springy setting of the text. Bowen, equipped with banjo, exhibited similar vigour in Summer’s Act 4 number.

Shakespeare’s Theseus asks, ‘Come now; what masques, what dances shall we have,/ To wear away this long age of three hours/ Between our after-supper and bed-time?’ Evans didn’t quite fulfil the role of the king’s ‘manager of mirth’; nor did her ‘drama-heavy’ concept satisfy the monarch’s request, ‘What masque, what music?’ But, the instrumentalists and singers of the AAM certainly did ‘beguile/ The lazy time … with some delight’.

Claire Seymour

Purcell: The Fairy Queen (semi-staged performance)

Academy of Ancient Music: Richard Egarr director/harpsichord
Rowan Pierce - soprano, Mhairi Lawson - soprano, Iestyn Davies - countertenor, Charles Daniels - tenor, Gwilym Bowen - tenor, Ashley Riches - bass, Choir of the AAM, Timothy West - narrator, Daisy Evans - stage director, Jake Wiltshire - lighting designer.

Barbican Hall, London; Monday 10th October 2016.