I DIDN’T believe it was possible to make Iford MORE magical, but Timothy Nelson’s sparkling new performing edition of Purcell’s A Fairy Queen has done just that.
Of course the work, composed in 1692 to be performed interwoven with Shakespeare’s already popular A Midsummer Night’s Dream, has magic at its heart. But the Renaissance talents of American writer, director, harpsichord player and conductor Tim Nelson not only gave the fortunate audience a new look at Purcell, but a whole new approach to Shakespeare’s familiar story.
This really was a Dream for the troubled days of 2016, a story of reckless hedonism, carelessly exercised control and dire consequences. It was sexy, sensuous, funny and frightening – and it was beautifully sung and performed by the members of the Early Opera Company and the period orchestra.
What was lacking this year was Christian Curnyn, whose indisposition brought Tim Nelson in to lead the musical forces as he had directed the proceedings – a remarkable feat, borne lightly.
With enchanting designs by takis, Iford’s intimate cloister was a fairy glade where mortals ventured unaware of the lurking perils as gods played them like puppets.
Large chunks of Shakespeare were spoken by the singers, amplified for the occasion with microphones turned off for their singing. Perhaps in the close confines of Iford it wasn’t necessary, but it didn’t spoil the effect.
Lucy Page, as Titania, was unable to sing at the Tuesday performance, but acted and spoke the role while her ‘cover” Iford New Generation Artist Cally Youdell, sang from the wings to beautiful and ethereal effect.
Perhaps the star of this ensemble was Frederick Long, born in Manchester, an alumnus of Bristol University and playing Puck and Robin Starveling with huge panache and charm, using his flexible bass-baritone to stunning effect.
Ciara Hendrick returned to Iford to sing Hermia, with Rose Setten as her love rival Helena, Simon Gfeller as Lysander and Jon Stainsby as both Demetrius and Nick Bottom.
Counter tenor Jake Arditti was the jealous Oberon, with Stuart Jackson as Peter Quince.
It almost goes without saying that they, and the rest of the ensemble, brought Purcell’s plangent arias and energetic dances to vivid life in the cloister. But in Tim Nelson’s adaptation the acting was almost more important, as the atmosphere of the piece veered between rustic and romantic, and then into depths of hopelessness which were only tentatively mitigated by the promise of light and love.
It was brilliantly done, in all aspects, and Iford’s contribution to the Shakespeare anniversary may well be the most effective and memorable of all.