Critics are often portrayed as cynical sorts whose greatest pleasure is in finding an amusing put-down. At the interval of the Gabrieli Consort's Proms performance of The Fairy Queen, however, those I saw were misty-eyed with enchantment. Purcell's 1692 masque is a tireless beauty. You think you know the score, then suddenly a moment that you'd half-forgotten - the audacious chromatics of "Winter", the lazy sensuality of "Ye Gentle Spirits of the Air", the propulsive energy of the Act IV Symphony, the sublime stillness of the central section of "Thus the Gloomy World" - hits you like love at first sight. For me, last Sunday, it was the nightingales of Act II: played with effortless, intoxicating sweetness by Rebecca Miles and and Emma Murphy.
Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort have been performing this work with a largely stable line-up of instrumentalists and singers for more than a decade. That they know the score as individuals is one thing. That they know it together is what gives their interpretation such character and freedom. With harpsichordists Timothy Roberts and James Johnstone and theorbo players Paula Chateauneuf and Fred Jacobs at the helm of a superlative continuo section, the hazy, golden strings of the orchestra shimmered like fire-flies.
Though the Albert Hall is hardly the best setting for Purcell, the audience rapidly adjusted to the delicate sonority of the orchestra and the pert piquancy of Rebecca Outram's Second Fairy. But ravishing as the singing and playing was, the Gabrieli Consort would do well to take some lessons in presentation from Les Arts Florissants. Kate Brown's semi-staging was amateurishly blocked, exposing the lack of stage experience among some performers. Mhairi Lawson's infectious wit, Julia Gooding's regal grace, Peter Harvey's refinement, and Mark Le Brocq's insouciance served them well in the absence of proper direction, while opera stalwart Jonathan Best was an excellent Drunken Poet. Susan Hemington Jones's light, boyish Night, Daniel Auchincloss's liquid Secrecy, and Charles Daniel's magnetic Phoebus were, by contrast, best appreciated with both eyes shut.
A better director would have anticipated these problems. But why bother with a semi-staging when most of the audience will be sitting at home, wondering why they keep hearing shuffling feet on the radio? Coridon (Best) and Mopsa (Le Brocq) inevitably raised a laugh, but the musical compromises made at other points outweighed any visual benefits. I'm a sucker for Lawson's bright, flirtatious soprano and am baffled as to why she has yet to be cast by WNO, ENO or Opera North, but "If Love's a Sweet Passion" is not a comedy turn. By the same token, the costumes made the singers look like guests at a registry office wedding between a couple they believed would be divorced within a year. Musically, The Fairy Queen was blissful, even with the chaconne relegated to encore status. Theatrically, it was not.
BBC Proms: Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (020 7589 8212) to 10 SeptemberReuse content