Musical Magic: Purcell's 'The Fairy Queen'

Woo-1236-FairyQueen-300As an opera composer, Henry Purcell is best known for a single piece: the drama Dido and Aeneas, which dates from around the 1680s -- and strictly speaking, it's the only opera Purcell ever wrote.

In 17th-century England, musical theater in which all the dialogue is sung -- that is, opera -- hadn't really taken hold. Londoners got a taste of real opera for the first time in 1674, when a French production was staged at the Duke of York's wedding. But no one seemed to like it. Instead, the English preferred a kind of hybrid: a mix of brief musical numbers and songs inserted into a more traditional stage play, dominated by spoken dialogue. This was what Londoners expected, and as a result, it became the formula composers followed for several decades.

But in the 1690s, Purcell came up with four dramas that reversed that process. Music became the main focus; the spoken passages served more as a dramatic framework for a series of elaborate songs, ensembles and choruses. These pieces were called semi-operas, and the most lavish of them all was The Fairy Queen, first performed at London's Dorset Garden Theatre in 1692. The production was so extravagant they had to organize additional performances the following year just to cover the expenses.

It might be called a "semi-opera," but The Fairy Queen requires a whole crowd of performers -- essentially three separate casts comprising singers, dancers, and in its original form, actors, as well. Purcell based the piece on Shakespeare's popular play A Midsummer Night's Dream, but altered it at will to make room for self-contained musical masques (or scenes) in each of its five acts. Eventually, the musical numbers eventually became so dominant that in modern performances the spoken portions of the drama are often eliminated altogether.

Still, with or without that dialogue, The Fairy Queen features something for almost everyone. First, there's the music, some of Purcell's most inventive. There are scenes of slapstick and drag, a drunken poet or two, dancing monkeys, swans, and even a quartet of fearsome, green savages.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents a concert performance of The Fairy Queen from the legendary Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, one of the finest acoustic venues in the world. The featured soloist is soprano Johanette Zomer, performing with the Netherlands Chamber Chorus and the Sfera Armoniosa Orchestra, led by conductor Mike Fentross.