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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Opera Review: The Bunnies Run Amuck

The Fairy Queen at BAM.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
A mask from The Fairy Queen. Image © Brooklyn Academy of Music.
It's quite an amazing experience to see a 400-year old four-hour opera and to not want to walk out of the theater afterwards. Thursday night saw the U.S. premiere of Les Arts Florissants' staging of Henry Purcell's legendary semi-opera The Fairy Queen. At its conclusion, company director William Christie paused in the middle of his bows, and led orchestra and audience in a reprise of the opera's final chorus. It was a glorious, inclusive way to end one of the finest operas of this spring season.

A "semi-opera" that borrows heavily from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, the show alternates between spoken performance of the libretto (by a fine cast of Shakespearean actors) and a series of spectacular masques which comment on and interpret the action. This tradition of separating emotional reaction from narrative drive would form the root of opera seria and the influence of Purcell's work on the later operas of Handel is unmistakeable.

Jonathan Kent's staging of the work was aided by an unforgettable series of visuals: the giant spider that wrapped Titania in its webs, Apollo (Andrew Davies) descending on a golden winged horse from the flies. The entire production was set in a sort of library or study, with walls that slid in and out and a removable ceiling and floor. As the mind-bending masques began, a lake, a Monet haystack and even the Garden of Eden appeared. The comic business of the Mechanicals and the masques themselves were part high-flying Cirque de Soleil, part classic British holiday pantomime.

Nick Bottom and his band of mechanicals were the maintenance crew for Theseus' manor house--with Flute the bellows-mender (Robert Burt) operating the vacuum cleaner. They were played by a fine crew of actors, led by Desmond Barrit as Bottom. Their Pyramus and Thisbe was staged in classic, ribald Shakespearean fashion, with minimal cuts to the comedy. The four lovers were played by appealing young actors, with emphasis placed on the interchangeable nature of Lysander (Nicholas Shaw) and Demetrius (Gwilym Lee) as a cause of their romantic conflict. Finbar Lynch and Amanda Harris dueled as Oberon and Titania, and the shirtless Jotham Amman as a kinetic Puck.

William Christie led his crack period ensemble in a crisp performance, his ensemble's trademark clarity to the fore. Purcell's work requires both orchestra and singers to find their own place with respect to Shakespeare's play. The audience was treated to exceptional singing, with the company's key vocalists switching costumes and merrily taking on multiple roles. Ed Lyon (Adam in the final masque) Andrew Davies as as Phoebus Apollo (who sang his role in mid-air) and bass Andrew Foster-Williams were all exceptional. But the performance of Emanuelle de Negri brought down the house in her scene as the Plaint, whose aria stopped the ribaldry dead and brought down the house.
On his horse: Phoebus makes his descent in The Fairy Queen.
Photo © 2009 Les Arts Florissants

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