In Rockport’s Shalin Liu Center on Saturday evening, the Handel and Haydn Society’s glorious 100-minute version of Henry Purcell’s exquisite The Fairy Queen was handsomely sung, played and narrated as a radiant sun dipped beneath Sandy Bay.
It’s often remarked that English is a tough language to sing, but as Benjamin Britten argued, Purcell had a greater understanding of the English language than any other composer who tried to set it, and it is his ability to blend text, sound and structure into something remarkable and unique.
The perfect clarity and articulation of eight superb vocalists, tenors Jonas Budris and Stefan Reed, and basses Woodrow Bynum and Sumner Thompson—dispelled any notion that English is un-lyric. At the last moment, Sarah Brailey took over the indisposed soprano Sonja DuToit Tengblad’s large part to wonderful effect.
Written in 1692, The Fairy Queen was first performed to great acclaim in London at the Queen’s Theater. An unknown librettist adapted Shakespeare’s play for 17th-century tastes and provided the scenarios and texts for the masques. Purcell did not set Shakespeare’s texts, rather he provided music for the masques that are interpolated into each act of the play. The Fairy Queen follows the action of A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s tale of lovers, townsmen and fairies who find themselves together one memorable night in the woods outside of Athens.
Ian Watson played harpsichord with éclat and directed with aplomb. The reduced forces of the H+H orchestra sounded clear, well-tuned and lively. Cellist Guy Fishman distinguished himself with noble tones, and recorder/oboe players, Priscilla Herreid and Meg Owens dispatched well-matched musical lines. If only the theorbo had been as audible as it was visually striking.
But it was the singers’ night, as one after another gave winning performances. Sumner Thompson, very impressive throughout the evening, stole the show as a stumbling Drunken Poet.
In Act II, Sarah Brailey’s gorgeous lament in “Night” banished every care: “Let noise and care, Doubt and despair, Envy and spite, (the fiends delight) Be ever banished hense, Let soft repose, Her eyelids close; And murmuring streams, Bring pleasing dreams.” In the same act, Sumner Thompson, as the Poet, lulled this reviewer with the beauty of his voice in “Sleep,” “No noise disturb her sleeping sense. Rest till the rosy morn’s surprise.”
The excellent narrator Jennie Israel founded the Actors’ Shakespeare Project in 2004. If the story line made any sense (besides being an opportunity to make delicious music), it was because of her abilities to tease out the strands and meanings of the complicated play. Her classy delivery unified and clarified.
The chorus, made up of the eight soloists, delighted us with nuanced and spirited ensemble vocalizing. In the concluding act, five soloists delivered some of the loveliest music of the evening. Margot Rood as one of the attendants, emoted deliciously about “that happy happy day, The birthday of King Oberon,” before four other singers praised the four seasons. Sarah Brailey evoked “the ever grateful spring… All (melismatic) your sweets before him lay, The round his altar, sing and play.” (the is how it appeared on the program)
Emily Marvosh embodied summer, Stefan Reed brought on autumn (with a beautiful cello accompaniment), and Sumner Thompson splendidly summoned winter, which “comes slowly, pale, meager, and old, First trembling with age, and then quivering with cold.”
What a joy it was to be in the audience on this (mid)summer-like eve!
H+H plans to repeat this in Tanglewood in August and next April in Boston with (somewhat) different singers. They have a winner.