Arts & Events

New: Purcell’s THE FAIRY QUEEN at SF Conservatory of Music

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Wednesday March 16, 2016 - 10:50:00 AM

Henry Purcell died in 1695 at the early age of 36 just three years after the premiere of his semi-opera The Fairy Queen, which in turn came only a year after the great success of his other noteworthy works in this genre, Dioclesian and King Arthur. The genre itself developed in England out of the popular court masques. Semi-operas combined spoken dialogue, acting, instrumental music, singing, and dance. The libretto for The Fairy Queen, by an anonymous author, offers a heavily abridged version of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. This material, usually presented in spoken dialogue, was absent in the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s concert version of Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, which included all the music Purcell composed for the 1692 premiere as well as the music he added for the 1693 revival. None of the familiar characters from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream have singing roles, so the singing is provided by nymphs, fairies and allegorical figures. I attended on Saturday afternoon, March 12, the second of two performances of Purcell’s The Fairy Queen at San Francisco Conservatory of Music. 

Under the direction of Corey Jamason and Elisabeth Reed, The SF Conserv-atory Baroque Ensemble presented a large orchestra including strings, two recorders, two oboes, two trumpets, kettledrums, and a continuo provided by theorbo, guitar, cello, and harpsichord. Corey Jamason conducted from the harpsichord. The Fairy Queen begins with instrumental music: a Prelude, Hornpipe, and Rondeau. Then comes the Overture to Act I. Following the Overture a song is offered as a duet for a pair of lovers, here sung by soprano Erin O’Meally and baritone Thomas Wade. Erin O’Meally made her mark right from the start with her excellent delivery of her share of this duet. Next came a delightfully comic “Song of the Drunken Poet,” sung in rollicking fashion by the oversized baritone Brandon Jaico, who demonstrated a flair for comic delivery. Two sopranos, Ashley Valentine and Jie Pan, sang as the drunken poet’s interlocutors. 

Act II begins with an instrumental Prelude, followed by a song addressed to the birds. Tenor James Hogan gave a strong rendition of this song, which was immediately followed by two recorders imitating birdsong. A trio comprised of mezzo-soprano Whitney Steele, tenor Sidney Ragland, and baritone Thomas Wade then sang in hopes of inspiring the birds, and their voices were echoed by trumpets. Soprano Megan Rao then delivered a brief, lively song inviting the chorus to join in. Soprano Jessica Bianco sang Purcell’s night music, sensitively portraying the soporific quality of Purcell’s invocation of the night. Two mezzo-sopranos, Mariya Kaganskaya and Marissa Simmons, then offered more night music, followed by baritone Justin Bays who hushed the world to sleep. 

Act III begins with an instrumental Prelude, followed by soprano Erin O’Meally offering the dreamy, sensuous “If Love’s a Sweet Passion.” Two dances ensued, then soprano Ashley Valentine sang “Ye Gentle Spirits of the Air,” a difficult piece full of coloratura that was handled beautifully by the richly voiced Ashley Valentine in one of the highlights of the show. There followed a comic interlude between mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Dickerson and baritone Brandon Jaico, which offered another vehicle for the latter’s comic genius. Soprano Cara Gabrielson then delivered a nymph’s song on wooing, accompanied by cello, theorbo, and guitar. 

After intermission, a brief Symphony introduced Act IV, followed by a solo and chorus performed by soprano Jessica Bianco and full chorus. Next came renditions of the four seasons. Tenor Taylor Rawley sang of Winter; soprano Cara Gabrielson sang of Spring; mezzo-soprano Whitney Steele invoked Summer; and tenor Sidney Ragland invoked Autumn. Baritone Justin Bays then rounded off this invocation of the season by bringing us round again to Winter. 

Act V begins with an instrumental Prelude, followed by a song from Juno, goddess of marriage, sung exquisitely here by soprano Ashley Valentine. Then came a real show-stopper: the Lament or Plaint, “O Let me Weep.” This song, which Purcell added for the 1693 revival, was beautifully sung by soprano Erin O’Meally; and her performance, accompanied by echoes from the first violin, brought forth applause and bravas from an appreciative audience. This was Purcell at his most felicitous. Tenor James Hogan took up the sad mood of the previous Plaint with his song, “Thus the gloomy World.” Soprano Megan Rao brightened the mood with the short and sweet song, “Thus Happy and Free.” Soprano Jessica Bianco offered “Hark now the Echoing Air,” a florid aria of Italianate influence. Purcell’s The Fairy Queen then closed with a duet, a trio and choruses praising love and marriage.