MUSIC IN THE FAERIE QUEEN Reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

December 2, 2006
Tafelmusik Presents
Music in the Fairie Queen by Henry Purcell
Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre.

Henry Purcell (1659-95) “had a peculiar genius to express the energy of English words.” In this production we hear Purcell’s setting of words adapted from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream by unknown authors and presented as five between-act Masques that comment on themes of the original play: poetry, sleep, love, nature, and marriage.

The force of this Tafelmusik production is to transport the audience into a realm of privilege and pleasure free from all care, as is summed up in the lines that conclude the third act:” No Life so Blessed as ours.” The magic of Purcell’s music is that it hints at the worldly cares that usually bring us down, but the hint is light, as if our feet only skim the tree tops of this world as the music carries us to a space where brilliance and humour abound, where trouble is only the fading memory of a dream.

The troubles we rise above, and let our passage over them be quick, are the troubles of love and marriage. They are the stuff of soap opera and potentially, of cop shows.

Hermia wants to marry Lysander but her father wants her to marry Demetrius. Her best friend Helena loves Demetrius. They all run away and chase each other in a forest ruled by the Fairie King and Queen, Oberon and Titania, who are locked in custody battle, in which Oberon gets the upper hand by drugging his wife, causing her to fall temporarily and inappropriately in love with a rustic clown. The clown, Bottom, delighted to be deluded, is co-producing a play in which thwarted lovers, like Romeo and Juliet, kill themselves. In the end, everyone awakes into a world where everyday the sun rises and sets on “A new Wedding-day, and …a new Nuptial night.”

The clowning aspect of the production is taken care of by Derek Boyes and Ann-Marie MacDonald in street clothes who recite passages from Shakespeare’s play in the voices of a range of characters from the bottom to the top of the social register. They contribute quite a lot of broadly sliced ham, which the audience seemed to love. The principle soloists, haute-contre Marc Molomot, bass-baritone Olivier Laquerre, and soprano Laurie Reviol perform Purcell’s technically demanding score with careful attention to nuances of feeling.

The Tafelmusik orchestra and chamber choir, directed by visiting conductor and harpsichordist Richard Egarr, convey the motivic and harmonic coherence of this piece in precise detail. Purcell’s slightly dissonant counterpoint comes across as a metaphor that holds the entire production in a clear light.

If I had a question, it was about English. I wonder about the convention that has singers stuck in emulating the exaggerated diction of bygone eras of the English stage. To these ears, it sounded as ‘funny’ as Anne-Marie MacDonald playing Peter Quince in her Ottawa-valley farm boy voice.

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