Great moments in opera: The Fairy Queen

November 12, 2011

Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen is based not, as one might expect, on Spenser, but on Shakespeare. Designated a semi-opera, it is structured around a loose adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Shakespearean frame being elaborated with music, song, and dance. By convention, the elements of masque belong to the world of faerie, and so Purcell’s contributions pertain, in greatest part, to the strange and mysterious world of Oberon and Titania, through which the Athenian lovers flit like fire-flies.

Some of the music of The Fairy Queen has an incidental quality to it, designed to provide accompaniment to dancers, or to play over scene changes. It is lovely in itself, and pleasant to hear, but not particularly memorable. But some of it is made of sturdier stuff. A number of the songs, for instance, have become popular as recital pieces. In this post I’ll sample a couple of those.

A few years ago, to mark the 350th anniversary of Purcell’s birth, the whole of The Fairy Queen was staged at Glyndebourne, with William Christie in the conductor’s seat (and he did sit), a starry cast of singers, and an atmospheric production. The clips below are taken from that event. (It was a fine production, but marred by some incongruous directorial choices. It is remarkable to me that a production which, on the musical side, takes every care to cultivate the ‘historical authenticity’ of the music, the instruments, and the manner of playing, will then, on the theatrical side, inject a jarring post-modern sensibility into the stage action in order to get a cheap laugh. I won’t go into details.)

First, to illustrate how the music of Purcell is integrated into Shakespeare’s play, here is the scene in which Oberon bedews Titania’s proud eyes with the juice of that herb which maidens call love-in-idleness. It is more typical of The Fairy Queen that Shakespeare’s lines be delivered without musical accompaniment, but here the orchestra contributes some atmospheric effects to heighten the moment. The segment I have in mind lasts about 90 seconds; if you continue watching you’ll see a good example of the masque elements of the production.

A piece that has become popular with recitalists is If Love’s a Sweet Passion. Though not part of the original play, the sentiment of the song is apt enough:

If love’s a sweet passion, why does it torment?
If a bitter, oh tell me, whence comes my content?
Since I suffer with pleasure, why should I complain,
Or grieve at my fate, when I know ’tis in vain?

A second, and perhaps slightly more famous, excerpt is O let me weep, which is also sometimes simply called The Plaint. I first learned this song from an old Alfred Deller recording. I believe that the singer here is Lucy Crowe.

O let me weep, for ever weep,
My eyes no more shall welcome sleep;
I’ll hide me from the sight of day,
And sigh, and sigh my soul away.

Not very cheery, but, my goodness, these Elizabethans did melancholy like nobody else.

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