Based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Purcell’s semi-opera The Fairy Queen was first performed in 1692, three years before the composer’s early death. Les Arts Florissants’ Paul Agnew talks about their new production, created with choreographer Mourad Merzouki and vocal ensemble Les Jardin des Voix, touring throughout 2023–24.

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Les Arts Florissant’s The Fairy Queen
© Julien Gazeau

Can you introduce yourself, and talk about your current musical role? How do you combine singing and conducting?

My name is Paul Agnew, I am co-director of Les Arts Florissants. I’ve been co-director for about three or four years. Before then I was associate conductor, and before then I was an invited conductor. And before that I was a singer. I’ve been singing with Les Arts Florrisants, among other ensembles, since 1992. A very long time!

How do I see singing and conducting? They’re very different. I conducted when I was at college at Oxford. I loved it – it was always my intention that if I ever got the chance I would conduct, after my singing career. It happened a little bit sooner than that. I always imagined they would be similar, and of course, they’re completely different.

When singing, you have the text and you are somebody. You have a direct contact with the public – you look them in the eye, and you get to know the public throughout the evening. Conducting is, of course, an act of immense concentration and communication, but in another sense – directly to the musicians, to the orchestra, to the choir, to the soloists. You might see the audience for about thirty seconds, maybe a good deal less. Sometimes it’s only at the interval or the end of the concert that you remember that the audience is there! Even though the whole act of performing music is, of course, with the audience. It’s in communion with the audience.

Singers of Les Jardin des Voix sing “They shall be as happy” from The Fairy Queen

Do you remember the first time you performed The Fairy Queen? What impression did it leave on you?

Yes, I think I first performed it in concert. My main memory is being in Lisbon and doing a stage production with Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert and the Royal Shakespeare Company. They did a somewhat (but not very much) cut version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We did all the music, and it took about five and a half hours – it was immensely long! But it was gorgeous. It was funny and touching and beautiful and mysterious and magical, as the play is.

The music is a sort of divertissement, which happens at the end of each act. It makes gentle reference to the play without being very specific. I loved it; I sang the tenor role, so I sang Autumn and Spring, and I sang “One Charming Night”. The tenor has gorgeous music to sing. I loved working with Trevor at the time and the English Concert. It was a joy and to be surrounded by these amazing actors, I think I learned a great deal about being on stage and so on. It was a very happy memory.

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Paul Agnew in reheasal with Les Jardins des Voix
© Julien Gazeau

What particular abilities are required in directing this piece?

Well, I suppose you need to be able to place Purcell. You need to know about Matthew Locke and William Lawes, and you need to know a little bit about the history of England – the Commonwealth and then the re-establishment of the monarchy just as Purcell is born. And then there’s the love affair which Charles II has with French music: his cousin is Louis XIV, and he’s seen his young cousin dance, and he’s heard the music of Lully, and the vingt-quatre violons du Roi. One of his first acts is to create the 24 Violins of the King – a photocopy of the French establishment, or at least he would like to think it is. He appoints a Frenchman, Louis Grabu, as his Master of Music. And then when no more Catholics are allowed near the King, he sends his musicians to France to learn how to compose.

There’s a very French accent to this music, and it’s this music which Henry Purcell grew up with. When he sang Pelham Humfrey, for example, in the in the Chapel Royal, he would have sung it in that French style. A style which the King loved, “the bransle!” as he said, and he would tap his hands on the chair when the orchestra played. But while this music has a French accent, it still has a quintessentially English soul, and Purcell’s own very particular language. As a conductor I think you need to have done your homework, you need to be light of foot – and to love it. It’s charming, beautiful, funny, touching, magnificent music – and if you can communicate a little bit of the love for Purcell’s music then people should be very touched.

Mourad Merzouki’s choreography to the Act 1 Overture

What is your favourite passage in the work?

I don’t have a favourite passage – but there are spectacular pieces like The Plaint: “O Let Me Weep”. The two Overtures at the beginning of the two Acts (as we use them) are also spectacular for the orchestra – Purcell’s harmonic writing is extraordinary. The beautiful Italianate recitative songs, “Ye Gentle Spirits of the Air” for example, the lovely choruses, the Chaconne at the end, it’s impossible to choose a favourite moment. It’s been a joy to rediscover, to re-work it with the orchestra and the young singers of Le Jardin des Voix – for them, it’s a big discovery. And then to have it danced so magnificently by the company of Mourad Merzouki, it was a joy from day one.

In performing this work, what do you find most difficult?

I hope we don’t find that any of it difficult in that sense, because we’re very well prepared! We’ve talked about it a lot, I’ve intensely coached the singers along with William Christie – we know what we’re trying to do. If there is a challenge, it’s to reignite the excitement every evening. It’s a piece we’re going to do a lot. And that’s great! To have many performances of pieces is very exciting. But there is a challenge, that it needs to be new every time. It needs to be reinvented, every time we walk on stage. It can never be like it was last week or yesterday. It must be new – for that audience, for that evening, for that day… The difficulty is to keep the energy fresh, and to keep it as exciting as it was in the very first performance.

Prelude to Act 2 from The Fairy Queen

What imagery in The Fairy Queen do you find particularly striking?

Well, it’s a magical piece. The opera starts off saying, “Come, Come Let Us Leave the Town”. And after this we immediately go into the magic of the forest, into nature with “Come All Ye Songsters of the Sky”. We enter into a reverie about nature, love, mystery, night and sensuality. I think it’s absolutely as relevant to everything that we feel today, as they felt then. Purcell never got to be an old man – and the young Purcell was incredibly in touch with those feelings, and they come out so perfectly in his music. It’s a joy.

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Choreography by Mourad Merzouki
© Julien Gazeau

Why should one come to hear a performance of The Fairy Queen?

I think you should come because it’s a ball. It’s not a typical Fairy Queen. This is a ballet: the dancers sing and the singers dance. And by the end of it you have no idea who is who. Mourad Merzouki has done an absolutely astonishing job – his instincts are so incredible with the music, that you feel as though you hear the music in the dancers’ gestures. We have a fabulous set of young singers, Le Jardin des Voix, they come from all over. From Canada, from the US, England, France, Holland, Portugal, Lithuania. Together with the dancers, they create a real company – it’s an amazing energy on stage, and that really transmits… Come to it to have fun!

Les Arts Florissants’ Fairy Queen is on tour from August 30th to June 27th 2024.

This article was sponsored by Les Arts Florissants.