Hampstead Garden Opera’s The Fairy-Queen

Off with the fairies

Unsurprisingly, the most brilliant of all English music-theatre pieces are mostly overlooked

On Opera

This article is taken from the April 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

About bloody time too: finally, a statue is to be raised to London’s transgender sex workers, right outside the ENO, on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. Let’s hope they dedicate an opera to these unsung heroes: it would make a joyous change from modern English opera’s obsession with child abuse and allied miserablisms. As anyone whose horizons have been abruptly expanded in some Bangkok love-bower would have to agree, it would fit perfectly into that other, jollier strain of our native lyric drama, orgiastic, sensual, sexually all-embracing, featuring such marvels as Handel’s Alcina and Michael Tippett’s free-for-all love-feast, The Midsummer Marriage.

Now that it’s illegal to suggest any positive angles in the country’s sordid, vicious history, opera finds itself in the odd position of being English culture’s last champion and redoubt, its power as sub rosa propagandist for the blessings of the past based largely on the lucky fact that hardly anyone is aware it exists.

But it’s a tricky position. England’s peculiar attitude to opera — that heady cocktail of snobbery, embarrassment and scorn — has scarcely changed in the 300-odd years that people have been trying to make a go of it, with language itself the perennial dash of controversial bitters.

After some early test-runs in English, it was quickly found that doing it in Italian was way better at keeping the proles out, besides avoiding the shame and boredom of having to understand all those effete sentiments.

This is the true reason why opera in English has only really ever existed viably as pageant or burlesque (or in the case of G&S, both at the same time): nobody could bear the horror of hearing its poetastic vapourings being belted out in English.

Rare examples were tolerated, like Dido and Aeneas, which made the cut by being so brilliantly concise, but everyone really preferred piss-takes like The Beggar’s Opera or the terrifically silly Dragon of Wantley by Handel’s bassoonist Frederick Lampe (possibly the greatest opera of all time, touring the south-east with New Sussex Opera from 14 April, and not to be missed).

Unsurprisingly, the most brilliant of all English music-theatre pieces are mostly overlooked. Henry Purcell wrote his “dramatick operas” King Arthur and The Fairy-Queen a few years after Dido, and they were just about the biggest shows of all time, megabuck song-and-dance spectaculars, full of fireworks, magic, flying machines, dragons and (they do say) dancing monkeys. These works of 1691 and ’92 beat that slowcoach Wagner to his Gesamtkunstwerk wheeze by 160 years.

And they were a proper night out, the “masques” played between the acts of full-length plays: for The Fairy-Queen, that was A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Purcell’s interludes are themselves a dreamlike response to the dream of the play: sexy scenes where the woodland comes alive, and sensuality gambols amidst the deceptions and enchantments wrought by Puck’s love-potion.

Henry Purcell

The fairies grab the limelight; pleasingly, the first human to pitch up is a drunken poet, lost in the wood and tormented by these not entirely benign, off-the-leash spirits. As soon as transfiguring night descends — summoned by the circling, tranced incantation “See, even Night herself is here” — we see that they are embodiments of the subconscious, their purpose to unleash the ecstatic in humans.

Music and words plunge beyond the rational to revel in the magic and blameless confusions of liberating night. The piece’s motto is “One charming night gives more delight than a hundred lucky days”. Men and women, in drugged erotic oblivion, live and solve dilemmas of love and sexual politics too intractable for day.

An irruption of tearing grief (the lament “O let me weep”) is more effective for being completely unexplained. The masques are free-form fantasies that unfold through dance as much as words. When Purcell launches a metaphoric pageant of the seasons as the new day dawns, you regret how these sweet, aching dissonances and harmonic liberties will have been abolished from music by the time Handel was writing, only 15 years later.

These days nobody does this or King Arthur — appended to a Dryden play, a vision of national utopia — as written, but the masques alone, freed from their anchors, unleash the theatrical imagination: resourceful directors can produce wonders with them.

Sadly ecstasy, celebration, harmony are not generally the strong suit of our younger directors, who prefer to stage “searing indictments” of this or that. But hope dies last, as they say, and the latest shot is Eloise Lally’s staging with the admirable Hampstead Garden Opera (at Highgate from 19 April). The Fairy-Queen is an English Magic Flute — only a lot sexier, and with better words — a manifesto of human unity born through love, the basis for the restoration of social harmony conjured in King Arthur.

Taken together, this pair of “Restoration Spectaculars” are the most powerful urging for reconciliation after 50 pretty rough years in Britain. Of course that half-century of tohu-bohu from 1639 was a tea-party compared to the division, ruination and havoc wrought by Gove (“Unkool”) and the gang in a mere fourteen, but hey, that’s progress for you.

Purcell’s message is “only love can save us”. Though to be frank, a few thumping military victories over the Scots, Irish and French as well wouldn’t hurt.

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