Iford Arts: ‘A Fairy Queen’
Early Opera Company, Tim Nelson
Iford Manor. 3 August 2016
Iford Manor, near Bradford-on-Avon, was the home of the Edwardian architect and landscape designer Harold Peto from 1899 until his death in 1933. He created the Italianate gardens that clamber up the hillside above the classical-fronted mediaeval Iford Manor house, with terraces of formal architectural bits and bobs including a tiny recreated Italian cloister.Since 1996, the cloister has been home to summer opera productions, presented by Iford Arts. Their latest season concluded with ‘A Fairy Queen’ presented by Iford Arts and their regular orchestra from Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company.
Purcell’s The Fairy-Queen is notoriously difficult to perform or stage. The music, designed to accompany the masques that form part of the various acts, only lasts long enough for half a normal concert. Performed complete, with Betterton’s rather awkward version of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, it seems to lasts for ever. I remember the 2009 Glyndebourne Festival production and watching the bemused faces of those members of the Glyndebourne audience who hadn’t done their homework as they endured 45 minutes of rather hack spoken dialogue before the music really got going. They were not let out until five hours later. A reduced version appeared at that year’s BBC Proms, complete with such jollities as an escaped bouncing boob, and the spectacular bonking bunnies’ scene that, at Glyndebourne, had continued out into the estate grounds during the dinner interval. In contrast, two years later, English Touring Opera gave a very different version directed by Thomas Guthrie, based on the life and paintings of Thomas Dadd and set in Bedlam.
The title of the Iford production was apt. This is not THE Fairy-Queen, but ‘A’ Fairy Queen. For Iford Opera, Tim Nelson has completely re-cast the original words and music into a more compact piece, the subtlety of the slightly changed title possibly confusing those who expected something more like the original. This was Fairy Queen, but not as we know it. Characters were omitted, or merged, and additional music and text was introduced. The re-working of the original was compelling and worked well, as long as you were not wedded to Purcell’s original music and the nature of the original production. Several numbers were sung in different formats or by different people, for example, “O let me weep” which was transformed into a quartet. Other Purcell music was introduced, along with texts from other sources. After a prologue, the play was divided into four ‘Nights’ featuring The Mechanicals and Bottom; Oberon & Titania; a bed-hopping ‘seasons of love’; and the Mechanicals’ play.
The production was a riot of visual images (designed by takis), with the tiny cloister courtyard transformed into a silvery fairyland. The action within this confined space (only about 7m square) was frequently hectic but within the mayhem there were some delightful moments, one being Titania (Lucy Page) seductively stroking Bottom’s ithyphallic ears as a prelude to mounting his supine body where she proceeds to enjoy herself sitting on top of Bottom while singing Purcell’s beautiful Evening Hymn (‘Now that the Sun hath veil’d his Light’). Her repeated incantations of Hallelujah will be hard to get out my mind. Inevitably, Bottom then rolled over to fall asleep – ‘To the soft Bed, my Body I dispose’ indeed.
The goings on between Demetrius, Helena, Lysander and Hermia had them rolling around in their undies atop four metal-framed beds. For reasons not entirely explained, Demetrius (Jan Stainsby) sand ‘Sweeter than Roses’ under a shower head that had been dripping water for most of the evening, and didn’t manage much more of a discharge when he attempted to shower himself. Not surprisingly, the section ended with ‘No kissing at all’ as Helena (Rose Setten) evades the attentions of Demetrius and Lysander.
For opera singers used to, and trained to, project and act into vast auditoriums, it must be an extraordinary experience to have the audience sitting within touching distance. That raised one of the few production oddities – that the spoken sections were amplified, which often meant that after a song, the voice would suddenly shift its acoustic focus to the rather boomy speakers spaced around the cloisters – a most curious and completely unnecessary process as all the performers were perfectly capable of speaking above the sound of the small orchestra.
In the original, the play and the musicians are in separate camps, but here the cast was reduced to just 8 singer/actors who had to sing as well as deliver the extensive spoken dialogue – no mean feat, even for seasoned opera performers. Although all managed this combination well, there were a few stand-out acting/speaking successes, notably Jan Stainsby as Bottom/Demetrius and Frederick Long as Puck. Also impressive as actors were Stuart Jackson as Quince and a Fairy/Machanical, Jake Arditti as Oberon, and Lucy Page (pictured) as Titania. These five were also the most impressive singers, although there were no weaknesses amongst the others, apart from the occasional over-use of vibrato. Special mentioned must also go to chorus soprano Cally Youdell who, as one of the four members of the Iford ‘New Generation Artist Programme’, also covered the roles of Titania and Hermia and, on this occasion, had to sing some of Lucy Page’s vocal numbers, while she acted out the part of Titania.
The 11 musicians of the usually excellent Early Opera Company were perhaps a little demob happy on the last night of the show’s run – there were rather more slips that would normally be expected, and the timing and intonation was occasionally awry. With the unfortunate disposition of their director Christian Curnyn, the re-arranger of the music, Tim Nelson, was also required to conduct and play continuo harpsichord, adding some noisy sniffs to the former and some rather out of place jazz inflections to the latter, notably during ‘Music for a while’.