fri 10/07/2020

The Fairy Queen, AAM, Barbican | reviews, news & interviews

The Fairy Queen, AAM, Barbican

The Fairy Queen, AAM, Barbican

A scrappy staging distracts from a superb performance of Purcell's semi-opera

Sing while we trip it: Gwilym Bowen turns troubadour in Daisy Evans' contemporary stagingBen Ealovega

Purcell’s The Fairy Queen is a riddle to which directors must find an answer. The problems posed by a work whose theatrical characters have no foothold in the musical interludes, whose text is an awkward composite of almost-Shakespeare and not-at-all-Shakespeare, whose unedited action can easily swell to a will-sapping four hours are not to be underestimated, but to address them by adding further narrative layers, further dramatic frames and meta-theatrical flummery is at best questionable and at worst wilful.

Faced with the challenge of Purcell’s semi-opera, Daisy Evans empties her director’s toolbox onto the stage, knocking through the fourth wall to create an all-purpose kitchen-diner of a concept in which all of Purcell’s characters and every stock theatrical gesture you can think of (fluttering paper birds, falling paper snow, ushers who suddenly turn actors, torches that become stars) must awkwardly coexist.

Timothy West delivers a motley collection of Shakespeare speeches and sonnets

This is a Fairy Queen as staged by contemporary Mechanicals. "Stage crew" wander around with the inevitable earpieces and skinny jeans, musicians burst in late, conductor Richard Egarr chats with a soloist who tries and tries to sing his entry without success. From this chaotic scene certain figures and relationships do gradually begin to coalesce. Rejecting both Shakespeare’s characters and Purcell’s, Evans makes stars of the stage-folk themselves, spinning a chaste love-triangle between a stage manager, a singer and a PA (Iestyn Davies, Rowan Pierce and Gwilym Bowen). As a guiding narrative thread through a piece that’s heavy with transgressive eroticism it’s pretty flimsy, and one that leads its audience further and further from the music itself.

Drama is king in a staging that consistently mistrusts or distracts from the score. Singers must duet while miles apart and facing away from the conductor, arias are sung at the extremes of the stage (effectively inaudible to half the auditorium) or delivered to the percussive accompaniment of paper-ripping or the banging and shuffling of furniture removal. Occasionally narrator Timothy West even speaks over the music, delivering a motley collection of Shakespeare speeches and sonnets with little obvious connection to the action.

It would be easier to forgive the direction if the music weren’t so very good. Egarr, the Academy of Ancient Music and a superb cast of young singers all deserve better than they get here. It all starts and ends with Egarr’s own continuo accompaniments, lively with the wit and whimsy that’s so conspicuously absent from the staging. The band match him for stylish shape-shifting, one minute a rustic wind-band for luckless shepherd Coridon, next ushering in the Masque of Night with the softest of string breaths. The chorus too, endlessly game and completely committed, sing exquisitely while performing a series of increasingly daft actions.

With the drama so diffuse none of the principals gets much chance to show their skill, but Rowan Pierce makes a charming heroine, sweet and round of tone and a natural lyrical foil for Mhairi Lawson’s vivid, declamatory soprano. Pierce’s Plaint is a rare moment of musical and dramatic harmony, benefitting from a rare stillness that trusts Purcell’s music to work its spell. An underused Davies (pictured above with Charles Daniels and Ashley Riches) makes what he can of what little he’s given, throwing himself into the bungling courtship of Coridon and Mopsa with energy more than matched by his seducer Ashley Riches. Tenors Charles Daniels and Gwilym Bowen round out the solo ensemble, each at their most exciting in the anything-you-can-do duet “Let the fifes and the clarions”.

This Fairy Queen marks the start of a cycle of Purcell semi-operas. Let’s hope for better next time.

Rowan Pierce makes a charming heroine, sweet and round of tone and a natural lyrical foil for Mhairi Lawson’s vivid, declamatory soprano


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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A speedily written but spot-on review.  Even if you closed your eyes to get away from the bonkers production, you couldn't really enjoy the music because of all the noise of people running about or moving clothes rails, waving bits of paper or tearing them up or sweeping them off the stage etc. Timothy West, alas, did not enhance this production. Daisy Evans was the one with the look-at-me shoes presumably?  I hope the AAM won't be using her again.

Amen to that! I best enjoyed it with my eyes closed. Wonderful music.

Timothy West was seriously underpowered. Many in the first tier up complained that they couldn't hear him.

A mystifying evening - and largely inaudible in the fourth row of the Circle. It would have been easier to follow had the auditorium lights been left on so that we could read the text which the programme had helpfully provided!

Absolutely no production value in this staging - completely let down the music, which was expertly performed by AAM. Couldn't hear Timothy West, could discern any diction in the signing and was completely in the dark with no light to read the text, missing out on a key aspect of opera (semi or otherwise) - the relationship between the text and the music.  Disappointed.

I agree with commentators above about the noise the paper made but as for the movement of props and persons on stage that has more to do with care taken rather than a director's ideas.

Timothy West was completely off form, sadly. He really didn't know his lines and that made his moments jolt. In addition I would argue that although the singing was beautiful, the acting was a little weak for what Daisy Evans was aiming for. 

AAM were excellent as ever and the production crew did a fine job in my opinion. Still, if the general consensus about the director's ability is luke warm then I'll say stay tuned; she's already the future of opera. 

I suspect this young director has no feeling for the marvel that is Purcell. While Daniels sang with ravishing beauty, we were wholly blocked by pointless paper ripping of the sort a schoolchild would have been told off for distracting the class. I felt like standing up in the dark circle and begging for a stop just to hear this singing of music written by a genius a million miles from the=is director's boastful and idiotic direction - an evening of potential beauty ruined. I don't know how these superb singers resisted kicking her into touch.

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