MUSIC / Queen for a weekend: Tess Knighton reviews The Fairy Queen, part of the Purcell Experience at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

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Roger Norrington's latest 'experience' at the Queen Elizabeth Hall was perfectly timed - in some ways. The original intention behind last weekend's Purcell Experience was clearly to generate interest in a composer in advance of the tercentenary of his death in 1995. He may indeed be 'the English genius', but he does not have quite the same profile as Mozart - yet. And then - a concert promoter's dream - last week a new Purcell autograph was discovered. It may be of limited musical interest - some keyboard pieces (a few new, others already known, and some arrangements of music from The Fairy Queen - the work under scrutiny during the weekend) - but even so this was more than enough to lend a buzz to the occasion.

Otherwise, the Experience was rather low-key compared to previous occasions; budgetary considerations had obviously clipped Norrington's wings somewhat. As the theatre historian Roger Savage wittily put it in the prologue he had written for the occasion, the critics could carp that here was semi-opera, semi-staged and with semi-Shakespeare, and it was indeed a shame that it was not possible to mount a full production. I wouldn't quibble about that - just pray that some enlightened opera-house takes up the challenge of historically informed production.

Even in semi-concert performance, The Fairy Queen's mingling of theatre, music and dancing works brilliantly. Semi-opera, despite the derogatory overtones of its name, must be one of the most satisfying art-forms ever invented (pace Wagner).

Our understanding of theatrical convention in the late-17th century was much enhanced by a splendid talk by Savage; there must have been at least some members of the audience who wished that the old customs of selling oranges and sexual favours during the performance were still de rigueur.

The bowdlerisation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream was completely in accordance with practices of the day, even if it grates on the ears of purists now. It didn't stop the actors conveying all the humour of the original. Using something like the appropriate instrumental and vocal forces (small-scale, no double basses, no male altos) is the accepted norm in Purcell these days, and the London Baroque Players and Schutz Choir of London were never less than stylish. The dancers of the Early Dance Project added a felicitous touch of spectacle.

As Nicholas Kenyon pointed out in his introductory talk, it is the voice of Alfred Deller that many people still associate with Purcell's music. Current thinking means that the counter-tenor sound is regarded as somewhat anachronistic, at least in the operas, but Deller's sense of line and use of vocal colour conveyed the essence of Purcell so persuasively that his performances are still remembered with both awe and affection.

I longed for more of these qualities in the singing on this occasion: high tenor Mark Padmore and soprano Lorraine Hunt came closest. But it has to be said that they were not always helped by Norrington's tempos, for, in spite of the conclusions he had reached assessing speed from the movement of the dance, these were wayward. Such bad timing, however, could not spoil a tremendous evening's entertainment.

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