Henry Purcell (1659-1695) was Handel's greatest English predecessor. Purcell is perhaps best known as composer of the first English opera, Dido and Aeneas. But he also wrote instrumental music for 40 plays and composed five masques, or semi-operas, that combine song, dance, and spoken word--King Arthur, The Fairy Queen, the Indian Queen, the Tempest, and Dioclesian. Of these, The Fairy Queen is widely regarded as Purcell's stage masterpiece.
Purcell's masques have been well treated in recordings. Soprano Phyllis Curtin, conductor Daniel Pinkham, and the Cambridge Festival Orchestra recorded extensive excerpts from The Fairy Queen for Allegro records in the 1950s. Since then, several other fine performances have come to LP and CD. Only recently, however, have efforts been made to present The Fairy Queen on stage in a way that its original audiences might have experienced it in 1692 and 1693.
The Fairy Queen is an adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream. This 2009 performance from Glyndebourne reunites Purcell's music and Shakespeare's drama. The musical and dramatic results are nothing short of spectacular. Baroque expert William Christie conducts the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and a fine team of soloists in a first-rate performance. Director Jonathan Kent provides what a Gramophone reviewer calls "a veritable feast on the eyes." He visually distinguishes the three groups of characters in the play: the humans (Thebans, dressed in 17th century costume), the mechanicals (who perform the play-within-a-play, in modern garb), and the fairies. The interpolated entertainments, or masques, provide further opportunities for visual variety. Both the music and the staging give expression to the underlying structure of Shakespeare's work, in which strife in the fairy kingdom creates disorder in the world, and harmony must be restored so that love and marriage may triumph.
Thanks to recordings, the beauty of the Purcell's music has long been recognized. But the music alone left most listeners (certainly this one) quite unclear as to what the Fairy Queen is all about. Now that the music and play have been brought together again, The Fairy Queen is no longer a mystery.
In the twentieth century, Benjamin Britten turned A Midsummer Night's Dream into a full-fledged opera. Britten was greatly influenced by Purcell. Think A Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, also known as Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell. In fact, Britten prepared editions of Dido and Aeneas and The Fairy Queen. It would be interesting for someone to trace parallels between Britten's opera and Purcell's semi-opera.
This video is an absolute must for lovers of Purcell or baroque opera. If you're tempted, don't resist.