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Purcell double bill - rehearsing the bird scene

Do you believe in magic?

Prepare for invasion – a troupe of young and exuberant singers are taking over St Mary in the Castle!  Barefoot Opera Young Artists, after their great success last year with Mozart’s Magic Flute, bring a characteristically fresh, physical and original production of Purcell’s operatic masterworks: The Fairy Queen and Dido and Aeneas, writes HOT’s Chris Cormack.

A company of magical fairy gypsies free-wheel into the auditorium and set up camp. These fairies are going to lure with fairy gold… but the escape is deceptive! So these fairies charm and inveigle us into the woods, where they leave us to confront the stark tragedy of Dido, Queen of Carthage’s fatal passion. Mime, shadow play, dance and characteristically lively ensemble playing, will unite these two works.

Purcell double bill - rehearsal of disappearing

The Fairy-Queen is a masque or semi-opera first performed in 1692, consisting of a series of short masques or music and dance tableaux, amidst Shakespeare’s spoken text for Midsummer Night’s Dream – Purcell did not set any of Shakespeare’s text to music.  It ends with a masque featuring Hymen, the God of Marriage, and it is now thought that it was composed for the fifteenth wedding anniversary of William and Mary.

A Financial Times reviewer described the Fairy Queen as ‘a challenging work requiring great dramatic vision to unify the disparate elements of music, dance and spoken word’. I asked Director, Jenny Miller, how she dealt with this challenge.

“Purcells’ Fairy Queen was created as a series of entertainments between the acts of Midsummer Night’s Dream, and though it has Fairies, Titania and Oberon, it has otherwise virtually nothing to do with the Shakespeare story.  Each separate ‘entr’acte’, as it was conceived, had a different theme, the closest to Shakespeare being the ‘Night’ section. Otherwise, there is a Seasons section, a Chinese section (in honour of Queen Mary’s collection of china!) and so on.

“The intention was to entertain, in precisely the same way a Hollywood musical in the early days set out to entertain – not with deep dramatic character analysis, etc, but with sheer fun, invention, exuberance. Lesley Anne Sammons and I have therefore chosen to keep the core of Titania’s and Oberon’s quarrel and use that, in the same way every musical has ‘boy and girl’ trouble, and celebrate the fantastical masque elements in the same way Busby Berkeley, for instance, celebrated his chosen medium. The challenge of making a dramatic thread link the numbers is there however you take it on.”

Does this mean that you will dispense with Shakespeare’s spoken text?

“The Shakespeare text is actually not relevant unless you choose to extrapolate and re-invent orders, which, if you play Fairy Queen for its own sake, you are liable to do in any event.  What we do have is unutterably delicious, life-enhancing and very sensual music with as always, being Purcell, unrivalled responsiveness to the spoken word.”

–     –     –     –

Dido and Aeneas was Purcell’s first opera, as well as his only all-sung dramatic work. Opera North describes it as an intimate human drama made out of a universal epic, packing a magnificently rich variety of music into the work’s hour-long duration, much of it composed expressly to be danced.

Regarded as England’s  finest opera for more than three centuries, there is still no more powerfully moving expression of noble resignation in the face of death than Dido’s great lament, ‘When I am laid in earth’. Being about one hour in length, it is usually produced together with other works, and more recently has been paired with such contrasting modern works as Bartok’s Bluebeard Castle (Edinburgh) and Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine (Opera North).

By pairing Dido with another Purcell work, this production offers some continuity of the musical offering and a common theme of ‘magic’ running through the two works. Dido is a story of the love of Dido, Queen of Carthage, for the Trojan hero Aeneas, and her despair when he abandons her. The love affair is hexed by three witches to produce a tragedy.

–     –     –     –

I asked Jenny Miller to talk about the extent to which the Fairy Queen and Dido and Aeneas  are merged – or are they  treated as separate entities?

You are entirely right to pick up on the theme of magic (as a link). Theatre is a kind of magic, that pulls us out of everyday life and makes us believe or accept the story being woven about us. So I have kept the sense of the ‘Fairy folk’- a vagabond and mysterious group who set up camp in our midst and charm and seduce us with flights of fancy and sheer nonsense, Fairy Queen and then when we are well ensconced in the woods, give us a story of compelling tragedy, Dido and Aeneas.

A night out at the theatre can be sheer entertainment and fun- and can also confront us with our most powerful feelings of loss – but safely, in magical hands.

Could you say a little more about the confrontation in the woods with the ‘stark tragedy’  – is this a changeover point between the music of the Fairy Queen to Dido and Aeneas?

We aim to bring the audience along with us, so that they feel the same story tellers are there and that the moon is the same moon, with a bright and dark side.

Purcell double bill - rehearsing the poet scene

The music will include Lesley Anne Sammons on harpsichord, a versatile Ian Watson on free-bass accordion and recorder player Evelyn Nallen, showing due regard to the Barock quality of the Purcell masterpieces. Music director, Lesley-Anne Sammons, has worked with major opera houses all over Europe. The costumes are all hand screen printed with patterns and will be layered up for Fairy Queen and stripped down to simple costumes for Dido and Aeneas.

There is much local support and talent involved in this enterprise. Director Jenny Miller,  a resident of St. Leonards for twenty-two years, is a professional singer and director, who is well-known in 1066 country for her work with young singers. The costumes are designed by Hastings born Hannah-Lauren Whitham and the young singers include local talents Anne Rebecca Laurent and Susannah Appleyard among 10 other gifted graduates from the London conservatories, principally Trinity/Laban and Birkbeck Colleges.

Barefoot Opera Young Artists, previously called the Complete Singer, have created high quality opera performance training for advanced young singers for the last 6 years. St Mary in the Castle has been the starting venue for tours of Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea, Hell Hath No Fury, Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Cosi Fan Tutte and the Magic Flute – all fully produced, in original languages with subtitles.

This year, the production goes on to Maidenhead and Wooburn Festival later in September. For people who would like to see the arts continue to flourish here in Hastings and support young people’s development in the performing arts, Barefoot Opera are seeking patrons to support this work and can offer a range of packages with various benefits. For  further information about joining the scheme, please contact Barbara Browning on 07814 87 39 68.

Purcell Double Bill: The Fairy Queen – Dido and Aeneas

St Mary in the Castle, 7 Pelham Crescent, Hastings TN34 3AF

12 September 2013 at 7:30pm  

All ticket enquiries on 01424 432 985  or to barefoot-opera@gmx.com (£15, £12 concessions, £10 students and under 16)

Posted 07:18 Wednesday, Sep 4, 2013 In: Music & Sound

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