Review: Handel and Haydn Society performs 'Fairy Queen' at Connecticut Early Music Festival

If you know the Shakespeare comedy "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and are told that the Henry Purcell semi-opera "The Fairy Queen" comprises incidental music written for successive 1692-93 London productions of the play, you well might be perplexed by the incongruity of such numbers as "Song of the Drunken Poet" and "Dance of Six Monkeys" and such characters as A Chinese Man & Woman or Corydon & Mopsa (at least there's no Cottontail). You might also expect some of the supplemental portions to be genuinely funny, rather than just kinda slapstick.

17th-century English tradition had it that such theatrical hybrids would feature not only instrumental overtures, dances, and interludes (all suitable, logical add-ons), but also arias and ensembles sung by only minor characters or by newly invented, wholly extraneous ones, engaged in little storylines or allegorical ruminations of their own.

So in Purcell's contributions to the omnibus entertainment, you get but oblique reference to such principals as the four lovers and none to the six mechanicals other than Bottom. By plot allusion, however, you do get Titania, the eponymous fairy queen, and Oberon, her fairyland husband.

Were the semi-opera to be attached to an even shortened version of the play, as was the case at the work's premiere, the whole would take north of four hours. So these days, when there's a subway to catch or a cellphone to recharge, the semi-opera is most often performed alone, though still racking up two-hours' traffic upon the stage.

And while containing much glorious music, a concert performance of "The Fairy Queen" features contiguous presentation of many items that would have been, in an integral performance, separated by substantial chunks of the play, items that, when played in direct sequence, can make little musical and less dramatic sense, and in their density of presentation, can bring on a certain ennui/numbness.

This was the situation — let's be straightforward and call it a dilemma — confronting the Connecticut Early Music Festival in its performance early Sunday evening at Connecticut College's Evans Hall.

First the good news. The musical presentation was absolutely first-rate, with the instrumentalists and vocalists coming via Boston's venerable Handel and Haydn Society, as much an enduring emblem of that city as baked beans, cream pie, and scrod. As led by conductor-harpsichordist Ian Watson, the chamber orchestra played with Purcellian spunk, grace, airiness, and, when called for (which occurred more often than you might expect), pathos. Some of the most affecting sounds of the evening came in the extensive section (the masque, as it's called) that deals with night and sleep during the play's Act II.

One might have wished, throughout, for a more persuasive continuo presence from both the bass lute and harpsichord, but the ensemble spirit and overall balance were unerringly captivating.

As expected, clarion and beautifully articulated solo singing was provided by the octet of vocalists that also served as the work's chorus. For whatever reason, the printed program neither identified any specific singer with their given solos nor, more critically for theatrical perception, identified which usually allegorical character was being represented.

Actress Jennie Israel supplied an animated though sometimes not fully audible narration, which, while engaging and helpful, still often left the listener at sea to deal with random-seeming numbers that lacked the mooring of either printed texts or supertitles (or, for that matter, program notes) — this apart from the fact that the evening's distributed list of selections was, confusingly, not always followed.

Probably to allow for the periodic insertions of narration, several large sections of the work were omitted (especially in the second half). Nevertheless, the performance, including intermission, clocked in at two hours, including intermission.

In toto, an evening of lovely music lovingly performed, a thorough aural delight, it being obvious that the singers and instrumentalists were fully relishing their semi-operatic venture. And it all sounded very British!

But even for a concert presentation, it represented an unrealized, perhaps evaded, artistic opportunity, one they'll probably tinker with before their Tanglewood performance of the work in August.



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