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Purcell: The Fairy Queen / Dantone, Accademia Bizantina


Release Date: 02/24/2004 
Label:  Arts Music   Catalog #: 47679   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Henry Purcell
Performer:  Gillian KeithRebecca OutramWilliam TowersRobert Murray,   ... 
Conductor:  Ottavio Dantone
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Accademia BizantinaNew English Voices
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 2 Hours 13 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

This recording of Purcell’s generally cheerful, occasionally even rambunctious Fairy Queen was recorded live in the Teatro Rossini at the Ravenna Festival on July 10, 2001. It was (thankfully) beautifully recorded before a virtually silent audience. Perhaps they didn’t know what to make of this semi-opera, which, if it is to make sense, depends on a foreknowledge of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. In Purcell’s day, the music would surround a shortened version of the actual play: Purcell’s music was technically a kind of overgrown appendage, in this case lasting longer than the dialogue. Its spectacular qualities responded to Restoration aesthetics, with its indoor theaters and their imported, newly elaborated theatrical machinery Read more (including footlights!). Shakespeare’s Globe Theater may have had a balcony, but only after the restoration could a composer call for effects such as this entrance by Armida, in Handel’s (admittedly much later) Rinaldo: “Armida enters, flying through the air in a chariot drawn by two dragons breathing fire and smoke.”

There are no dragons in The Fairy Queen, but several times fountains appear, more or less out of nowhere. Towards the end, morning dawns over a staircase full of “figures” with a waterfall at the top. The scene evokes Busby Berkeley or perhaps, given the fountain with water that “rises about twelve foot,” Esther Williams. Later, in the “Chinese” scene, Purcell calls for strange birds to be flying about (in the Air, he stipulates), birds which are attended by—and here his imagination failed him—“Beasts quite different to what we have in this part of the World.” Elsewhere, a bunch of pedestals with large vases containing trees move mysteriously about the stage while Hymen sings, mainly—I suppose—to stay out of the way of the dancers.

The opera, in other words, with its Monkey’s dance, its grand entrance of Juno drawn by Peacocks who obligingly spread their tails, is meant to be a vastly entertaining spectacle, more exotic even and more playful than Shakespeare’s original play. It has been beautifully recorded in the last decades. My favorite set is probably the Pinnock (on Archiv) with Anne Sofie von Otter, Nigel Rogers, and Lynne Dawson, with William Christies’s Harmonia Mundi recording a close second. (The Harnoncourt seems to me rushed.) Ottavio Dantone has assembled an excellent cast for this live recording as well. He’s a fine, energetic Purcell conductor, whose tempos and pacing seem just right. Dantone approaches the drunken scene with broad humor, his strings sagging woozily and his poet (bass Michael Bundy) sounding comically ill-at-ease and yet secretly pleased with himself as he confesses to being a terrible poet. (It occurs to me that it might be a good thing if all poets were pinched after writing a bad poem.) Of course, he explains, he is also poor. I don’t find Carolyn Sampson quite as touching, or as comprehensible, as Anne Sofie von Otter, but she is close. There are wonderful moments throughout, including in the orchestral playing. Dantone leads from the harpsichord, and his vigorous accompaniment is one of the charms of the performance. Given the differences among performances, even in the ornamentation singers introduce, there are plenty of reasons to welcome this superior recording of The Fairy Queen.

Michael Ullman, FANFARE
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Works on This Recording

1.
Fairy Queen, Z 629 by Henry Purcell
Performer:  Gillian Keith (Soprano), Rebecca Outram (Soprano), William Towers (Countertenor),
Robert Murray (Tenor), Andrew Carwood (Tenor), Carolyn Sampson (Soprano),
Michael Bundy (Bass)
Conductor:  Ottavio Dantone
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Accademia Bizantina,  New English Voices
Period: Baroque 
Written: 1692; England 

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