The Fairy Queen

The Fairy Queen
Reviewer's rating

First performed as part of the celebrations of a royal wedding in 1692, The Fairy Queen is more of a royal variety performance than an opera. In its original form, it was a series of masques put on between parts of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Nights Dream. It is a bizarre but enticing collection of songs and dances with some themes that emerge from the play, but it poses all sorts of challenges to a contemporary opera company. Hampstead Garden Opera (HGO) has entrusted the task to director Eloise Lally and she attacks the piece with wit and verve. To support her, HGO has assembled a brilliant group of young singers and musicians and this version is an ensemble piece par excellence. Many of the singers have their moment in the limelight  – and there is not a weak link among them – but it is the constant action as the nearly twenty performers dance and pose and cavort that gives the production its vitality. It looks as though they are having a great time – but one can only guess at the hard work that went into its preparation.

The “backstory that Lally has invented – about a photographer working on a series of themes and becoming obsessed with her creations – does not always work but it gives a continuity to the piece that does provide some structure. The setting follows roughly the five masques of the original. There are five scenes and they all have allusive links to moments in the play – we have lovers lost in the forest, we have mischievous fairies, we have a wedding. But not all the songs bear much relationship to the scene in which they are set and ‘lost’ characters suddenly re-emerge into different scenes. The photographer – played by Hannah Jessop with charm, a wide eyed sense of discovery, and even a bit of David Hemmings at one point – gives a sense of centre to the joyful chaos. If you don’t look for too much logic and go with the flow, it is glorious.

It is very hard to pick out individual performers in a piece that depends so much on ensemble work but James Holt as the drunken poet and Allyn Wu as Hymen were striking in their very different ways. Issy Bridgman was a commanding Juno and and the elegant Betty Makharinsky sang The Plaint with real baroque style. The HGOAntiqua Orchestra  – Seb Gillot directing them from the harpsichord – sounded marvellous. The moments when the strings were supplemented by the triumphal baroque trumpets were spine-tingling. And Gillot’s ‘Oberon’ moments were amusing. There were, of course, some moments that missed the mark – no more bad disco in opera please! – but the overall  impact was as intended – good fun and great music.

The term semi-opera was coined to describe this piece and similar works that combined singing, dancing, and spectacle with a hint of a less-than-central story being told. They were celebratory pieces and so HGO can take much credit to have brought together an inspiring group of performers who embodied that celebratory spirit in everything they did. Another great night at Jacksons Lane Arts Centre.

Jacksons Lane Arts Centre 

Composer: Henry Purcell

Conductor: Seb Gillot

Director: Eloise Lally

Performers incl: Hannah Jessop, Emily Gibson, Garreth Romain, James Holt

Running time: 2hrs 50 mins

Until 28 April 2024

Photo credits:  Laurent Compagnon