The ‘semi-opera’ was an English musical and spoken theatre hybrid which by the end of the 17th century had begun to scrape the bottom of Restoration drama’s literary barrel, and by the 18th had been rendered obsolete by efforts to introduce the English to formal opera from the continent. Its final flourish came from Purcell, who poured his considerable gift for setting text and writing for the stage into the genre, producing, most notably, the semi-operas Dioclesian (1690), King Arthur (1691), and The Fairy Queen (1692). The last, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, has five scene-setting musical masques thrown in among an abridged text, and was put on by Theater an der Wien sadly not in all its lavish glory, but rather as a concert performance with Robert King and his fine period ensemble The King’s Consort.

Robert King, © Keith Saunders
Robert King,
© Keith Saunders

The first production of The Fairy Queen was staged at the Dorset Garden Theatre in London and was one of the biggest Restoration spectaculars of the time. Eyewitness accounts describe a fountain which shot a jet of water four metres into the air and dragons which formed a bridge through which swans would pass and be transformed into fairies. Robert King explained that we would have to project our own wild flights of whimsy onto a backlit screen (seemingly on loan from a Silicon Valley product launch), but that his ensemble would take us back in time to Purcell’s unusual sound world.

It was a strange claim to fidelity, as the playing sounded rather tame for a theatrical extravaganza. The King’s Consort played accurately with excellent ensemble and King himself has a fine ear for small details, but the Purcell who could adeptly set bawdy verse to a catchy ditty was rarely to be heard. Dynamic range was limited and the instruments could have been pushed more to produce greater brightness and brilliance of tone. As accompanists they were, however, excellent, particularly in the lament numbers, which were sensitive to the singers’ phrasing and played with the soft warmth of an unobtrusive but continuous vibrato.

The cast did a good job of livening up the rather contrived dramatic content of the masques (which were performed one after other, without the stage play). David Wilson-Johnson sounded a little booming on occasion but was an entertaining Bottom figure throughout the evening. His drunken poet was amusingly inebriated without being overdone, and as the overfamiliar shepherd Corydon he made suitably forward vocal overtures to blushingly coy countertenor Peter Nardone in their comic courting song. Tenor James Gilchrist didn’t bring so much colour to this different characters, but his earnest-sounding light voice was pleasant and his phrasing well crafted. Supporting female roles were ably sung by Julie Cooper and Rebecca Outram. The vocal highlight was soprano Lucy Crowe, who sung her lively numbers with bright, powerful tone and effortless facility. Her lament ‘The Plaint’ began with quiet intensity and built up slowly to a devastatingly pained climax, making this Fairy Queen more memorable for its emotional impact than its frivolity.