The Barbican’s concert hall has a wide open-faced stage, it’s close to the audience, there’s no pit, no wings and little on-stage lighting. It’s decidedly untheatrical. But director Daisy Evans acknowledged its drawbacks and embraced them, envisaging a production of Purcell's The Fairy Queen which actively searched for a way of staging an opera in this space.

Charles Daniels, Iestyn Davies and Ashley Riches © Ben Ealovega
Charles Daniels, Iestyn Davies and Ashley Riches
© Ben Ealovega

As I milled around before the performance, I noticed baritone Ashley Riches standing in the foyer dressed in casual attire. Curiously, he remained there as I went to find my seat. The stage was littered with all the necessary trappings of a theatre: lights, flight cases, costume rails and scurrying technicians, and the orchestral members, like Riches, were also dressed in casual clothes. Without change to the house-lights, conductor Richard Egarr walked on accompanied solely by tenor Charles Daniels, both of them dressed in white tie.

Rushing over to him, ‘stage manager’ Iestyn Davies whispered in his ear, and Egarr, realising that this really wasn't a concert performance, nonchalantly apologised to the audience before carrying on. Beginning with this admission of apparent failure, a bond was instantly formed between the stage and audience, the fourth wall had been demolished before it could even be erected; a piece of theatre bespoke to this concert stage had begun before any conventions had time to kick in. 

As the Academy of Ancient Music stylishly played their way through the opening ‘musicks’, the cast, like them dressed for a rehearsal, began to realise that this was the performance. Gathering anxiously round a score, together they confronted the reality of almost having to sight-read from memory. This is Evans’ ingenious production concept, that the cast would confront the problem of how to stage the opera, by making it up as they went along. It was like watching an operatic research project, a group of test subjects thrown onto stage to see if they could solve the problem of semi-staging. This meant watching rehearsed singers trying to convince us that ‘they didn’t have a clue’, but on the whole this conceit was very well carried.

Mhairi Lawson and cast © Robert Workman
Mhairi Lawson and cast
© Robert Workman

They fashioned their own props, costumes and blocking: birds from sheet music, fairy wings from coat hangers and choreography through singer-to-singer imitation. However, at times it was difficult to reconcile this off-the-cuff approach with the many well-planned images and tableaux, such as when tenor Gwilym Bowen stood silent behind the leader as he answered soprano Rowan Pierce’s delicate singing of the ‘Plaint’, as if offering his sympathy to her through the violin’s response. This touching moment alone proved that Evans had created a production custom-fitted to this stage, and one that uses Purcell’s music as a canvas for potential connections with an audience, not a work to be wheeled out and sung through. But, even in addition to addressing the problem of semi-staging, this production also tackled the problem of The Fairy Queen herself. 

Purcell’s The Fairy Queen is not a through-composed opera. It’s more like a sumptuous costume cupboard; exquisite things, but surplus to requirement without a cast to wear them. Known as a ‘semi-opera’, it’s a fruit of the bombastic Restoration Theatre tradition, five incidental masques written to adorn each act of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But nobody really knows how Purcell’s music fits with the play, considering it only once refers to a single Shakespearean character.

‘The play’ came in the form of Timothy West, brought in from the foyer when the performance was well under way. His pitiful attempts to read the extracts put in front of him poked fun at a conventional use of The Fairy Queen as an accessory to Shakespeare, proving that such limited moments of contextualisation do little to inform an audience. Instead, his narrations became songs of their own, his bumbling delivery speaking volumes of our incapability to express life’s essential emotions. 

On top of this production’s ability to conquer the problem of semi-staging through experimentation, although it may not bear repeating, it also created an organic narrative capable of solving this opera’s confused identity. As Riches sang the songs of ‘Sleep’ and ‘Winter’, two stand-out moments, I knew that I was watching him, not a character; yet it was still theatre. Instead of watching a group of singers attempting the opera's vague and fleeting characters, encased by a stage, we were watching an honest group of musicians bringing us a performance.

Evans’ production created a narrative for The Fairy Queen, a mannequin to be clothed by its beauties, answering the questions surrounding both the opera and its staging by simply repeating them, live on stage. Eschewing conventions throughout, this Fairy Queen walked boldly out of the woods into an exciting future for opera staging.

*****