MusicNorth East & YorkshireOperaReview

The Fairy Queen – St Andrew’s Church, Aldborough

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

Music: Henry Purcell

Musical Director: Christopher Monks

The Northern Aldborough Festival, based in the tiny North Yorkshire village best known for its Roman town, totted up 30 festivals this year. With an impressive array of sponsors and volunteers, it runs for ten days, for the most part in Aldborough’s splendid parish church. This year the final concert was the premiere of the Armonico Consort’s brave attempt to make sense of Purcell’sFairy Queenin an adaptation by William Towers.

The need for an adaptation is made clear in Towers’ witty note in the programme booklet. As he explains, it was meant to co-exist with Shakespeare’sA Midsummer Night’s Dreamin an evening that would last above five hours! One can’t help feeling that cutting it to less than 90 minutes is overdoing things a bit. But Towers is more successful in facing up to the other problem Purcell leaves us with: none of the characters inA Midsummer Night’s Dream appears inThe Fairy Queen, being replaced by all sorts of odd characters of whom The Drunken Poet is the most famous, here characterised by Robert Davies with bibulous sonority.

Towers’ answer to this problem is to select parts of Shakespeare’s play and match them with Purcell’s songs and choruses, the whole thing presided over by Oz Clarke’s mellifluous commentary in the roles of Oberon and Theseus: many of the most effective passages pair his spoken words with an undercurrent of instrumental music.

The element of buffoonery promised in the programme is modest, but apart from the Drunken Poet we have alto singer Towers in drag as Mopsa in the entertaining Dialogue of Corydon and Mopsa. The dramatic content is also reduced by the singers from time to time resorting to singing from the score – which will no doubt be put right by the second performance on June 27 at Leamington Spa.

Identifying the singers is not always easy (the polished tenor is billed as “Guest Artist”), but all six perform impeccably, with the vocal highspots being the beautifully balanced choruses, “Hush No More”, taking us to the interval, and the triumphant acclamation of the day, “Hail! Great Parent”.

The playing of the Armonico Baroque Players is masterly, with delicious restraint or remarkable power for two violins, viola and cello (sadly, the outstanding cellist is not credited), Monks conducting from the harpsichord behind all the action, finding a gap for his head and arms between singers and musicians. His target, more often than not, is the two trumpets and single timpani in a side aisle, usually employed only in the Symphonies, but creating a glorious impression with long-bore trumpets and timpani echoing to wooden mallets.

Reviewed on 21st June 2024. Three further performances scheduled.

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Jacob Bush. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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