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Bob Bernard's Corner: A Love Letter from across the Centuries

Henry Purcell's The Fairy-Queen at Long Beach Opera January 22 and 28, 2017

By Bob Bernard

Lost for over two hundred years, the score for Henry Purcell’s semi-opera The Fairy-Queen was rediscovered early in the twentieth century. It had premiered in 1692 and was loosely based upon Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Its characteristics remain a touchstone for tonality and ornamentation in modern music.

The story continues as an irresistible vehicle for productions, both full-blown and abridged, both live and filmed. Photo images shown here were excerpted from:

  • The 1935 Max Reinhardt film, with Mendelssohn’s music (re-orchestrated by Erich Wolfgang Korngold) and a luxury cast bankrolled via depression era prices.
  • The 2009 Glyndebourne operatic production (on DVD), with Purcell’s music conducted by Maestro William Christie.

Reviewing, the cast of characters are apportioned into three interacting groups:

  • Oberon and Titania, the King and Queen of the fairies
  • Two pairs of “genially-crossed” lovers: Hermia and Lysander; Demetrius and Helena
  • An assembly of six Tradesmen, the most prominent being Bottom, the weaver
    • Puck, a fairy and a servant to Oberon, is the plot’s catalyst, interacting with all three groups.

These groups all repair to the woods, their destinies to be altered by supernatural means.

For stage productions in Purcell’s time it was SOP for the evening’s entertainment to play out in a series of “masques” – festive courtly entertainments with music, dancing, singing and acting, all portrayed within elaborate stage designs. These masques did not necessarily advance the plotline of the story, but were typically designed to be metaphorical, often presenting a respectful allegory to the patrons in attendance. The opera scene selections that follow were all excerpted from the 2009 Glyndebourne production.

The Fairy-Queen is quintessentially English, sometimes juxtaposing grace and refinement with adjoining coarse vulgarity. The side-by-side examples below contrast a courtly call for celebratory music (left) with a rural scene, mischievously entitled “A thousand ways we’ll find to while away the hours.”

   

Comedienne Anna Russell famously reminded us that, “You can do anything in opera, so long as you sing it!” In the Glyndebourne production, Director Jonathan Kent implicitly added this corollary: “You can stage anything, so long as you do it while using rabbit costumes.”

In the film, we enjoyed the artistry of some of Hollywood’s best-known actors (left to right): James Cagney as Bottom the weaver, Olivia de Havilland as Hermia, and Mickey Rooney as Puck.

      

Ms. de Havilland, later cast as a fragile Melanie Hamilton in the film Gone with the Wind, has proven to be the most physically durable of the film’s cast: She will celebrate her 101st birthday in July.

The story’s most flamboyant circumstance develops when Titania becomes supernaturally attracted to the transmuted person of tradesman Bottom. In the film (below left), the Titania of Anita Louise croons softly to James Cagney’s bewitched Bottom, while in the opera (below right), Desmond Barrit’s Bottom caresses the Titania of Sally Dexter.

   

A moving soprano solo accompanies the opera’s scene wherein Bottom romances Titania. This song, not a “love song,” but – much as with Cherubino’s aria “Voi che sapete” from Le nozze di Figaro – is a song about love.

In 2009, Baroque specialist Maestro William Christie discussed how Purcell’s score for this solo “If love’s a sweet passion” related to today’s musicians. The below photos show the maestro with the score.

   

Maestro Christie elucidated, “I have an awesome respect for what Purcell did. The score we have to begin with was created by specialists … for specialists! Initially, we have the barest of notation, just a simple [single] note-by note exposition, with no indication of dynamics, tempi, harmony, or instrumentation. What we then do is to go to the key words in the text as a guidepost for particularizing our orchestration.”

If love’s a sweet passion, why does it torment?
If a bitter, O tell me, whence comes my content?
Since I suffer with pleasure, why should I complain 
Or grieve at my fate when I know ‘tis in vain?
Yet so pleasing the pain is, so soft is the dart
That at once it both wounds me and tickles my heart

Maestro Christie summarized the situation: “These words are a veritable encyclopedia of dynamics!”

This love letter of an opera from across the centuries ends with a double wedding and a blessing unsurpassed by even the most gifted of the staff at Hallmark.

They shall be happy as they’re fair
Love shall fill all the places of care
And every time the sun shall display his rising light
It shall be to them a new wedding day
And when he sets, a new nuptial night

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