The Fairy Queen, Barbican, London, review: ‘the evening was a delightful succession of phantasmagoric tableaux’

The Academy of Ancient Music’s presentation of Purcell’s fantastical semi-opera ‘The Fairy Queen’ is the stuff of dreams, says Cara Chanteau

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The Independent Culture

The Barbican opened its new season with a wonderfully realised semi-staged performance by Richard Egarr and the Academy of Ancient Music of Purcell’s semi-opera The Fairy Queen, based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Though containing stunning symphonies and songs much plundered for recitals, it actually consists of five largely plotless masques, so director Daisy Evans wisely jettisoned any attempt to superimpose a narrative, offering instead a sort of controlled chaos as the performance was overrun by stage hands and technicians still bustling round the orchestra centre-stage, only gradually revealed as the singers.

And what singers they were: Iestyn Davies’s superlative counter-tenor, revealing his acting chops still in very good order in “No, no, no, no kissing at all”; Gwilym Bowen a charismatic young high tenor beside fellow tenor Charles Daniels’s clean timbre; bass Ashley Riches, a Radio 3 New Generation artist, swaggering with great panache as the drunken poet, while late stand-in soprano Rowan Pierce gave a heart-piercing account of “O let me ever weep”. Underpinned by the Academy’s informed musicianship – as vibrant in its fanfares as it was sensitive in its pianissimos – the evening was a delightful succession of phantasmagoric tableaux, conjured by Jake Wiltshire’s subtle shifts of lighting. The first of three Purcell semi-operas programmed over the next three years at the Barbican, this performance argues strongly for making a point to catch the next one.