The recent production of Purcell’s The Fairy Queen broadcast live from the Styriarte Festival reminded me again how much I enjoy Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s conducting. This came to mind during the overture, at various little moments of transition from one mood to the next – and just in general at many points throughout the performance. It’s something about the pacing, or the rhythm – hard to pin down in words, but Harnoncourt conveys just the right amount of energy with this music, so it’s engaging to listen to, but not in a way that sounds unidiomatic for Baroque music. (It feels not like “baroque music” but just simply “music”.) For me, watching this was essentially a very pleasant two and a half hours of well-executed Purcell, punctuated at intervals with “hey, there’s Dorothea Röschmann again!” (and Florian Boesch and Martina Jankova and a number of other people whose names I did not recognize, including a tenor, Joshua Ellicott, who gave a very lovely rendition of the autumn song in the ‘four seasons’ section in the second half.)
The production is quite different from the last one of this opera that I saw, a DVD from Glyndebourne. The work is not a full-on opera; as originally staged, the music is interleaved with an adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the Glyndebourne one, all the spoken text was performed. In Styriarte’s version, directed and designed by Philipp Harnoncourt, there is only one moment of spoken dialog, very briefly before “oh, let me weep” in the second half. I imagine that lengthy doses of English-language drama is probably rather less fun for a mostly German-speaking audience. And I found I didn’t really miss it. It increased the Purcell-to-everything-else ratio, which is hardly a problem.
And the original framing story was not ignored. They did it visually, with two dancers as a pair of young lovers escaping into the forest, encountering the fairy folk, and getting married at the end. I thought this worked well as a way to tell a fairy story – the human world is rendered silently, and the magical one via the music. (I am not sure why there was that one moment of spoken text before “oh, let me weep” but I didn’t spend all that much time puzzling over it because after the talking was finished, Frau R performed the song with her characteristic dramatic intensity and moments of really lovely bright, ringing sound. Right after this part, the music becomes a march as the story moves on, and I once again found myself appreciating Harnoncourt’s conducting – the transition between the one and the other was just right.)
Visually, the general concept was of the less-is-more variety, like Smetana’s Bartered Bride that Styriarte did a few years ago. The stage is relatively small, in a U-shape around the orchestra. The two escaping lovers climb down from a pair of windows in a kind of crazily hammered together wooden wall in the back, and most of the action moves around a few relatively simple stage items: overturned tree trunks, branches, a hay – I hesitate to call it a haystack; it was more of a modest and decorous hay pile – and so on. Costumes were whimsically miscellaneous – odds and ends, backpacks, warlock wigs, cargo shorts and pith helmets, hiking packs, glam dresses, and in one particularly memorable case, a sparkly Elvis jumpsuit for Florian Boesch as (I think) Hymen, at the very end. I missed some of the details because the stream’s video quality was not optimal, and in addition to that the stage was often oddly dark, e.g. during the finale. But neither issue took much away from my enjoyment of the performance. I wonder if they’ll issue a DVD of this?