★★★☆☆ Glittering Con students put the magic into Purcell’s semi-opera.

Music Workshop, Sydney Conservatorium of Music
May 17, 2016

Regal timpani opened the symphony of Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, the stage of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music’s Music Workshop transformed into a magical forest. Purcell’s 1692 semi-opera has had a varied performance history. Composed as a series of mostly plot-less masques to be interspersed with the action of Shakespeare’s A Midsummernight’s Dream, it his been performed in conjunction with the full play as well as in concert as more of an oratorio.

The Sydney Conservatorium of Music’s production, directed by Elsie Edgerton-Till, focussed entirely on Purcell’s music, cleverly weaving broad strokes of plot into dances and mimes, to paint a vivid, magical world. The order of Purcell’s music was rearranged, Edgerton-Till assembling it into a flowing, stand-alone narrative.

Jeremy Dubé as Hymen

Isabella Andronos’s set was economical: two armchairs against a backdrop of stylised forest, while her florrid costumes dripped with glitter (except for the humans, who wore jeans). The students’ singing was generally excellent, though diction varied across the cast. Baritone Tristan Entwistle stole the show as the Drunk Poet, hamming up the role with relish, slurring soddenly with a voice that – underneath the comedic distortions – was rich and powerful. Opposite him was Viktoria Bolonina as Mopsa, whose coquetry and energy was the perfect counterpoint to Entwistle’s hapless infatuation. While she couldn’t quite match Entwistle for projection in the earlier numbers, Bolonina’s aria One Charming Night, in her second role as Secrecy, was stunning, her voice as smooth and tenebrous as the velvet of her cloak.

Livia Brash’s Titiana and Chris Byrg’s gold-clad Oberon brought a dignity and (at times comically exaggerated) poise to their roles. Baritone Jeremy Dubé, in his roles as Hymen and Winter (his costume a suit of winter forest with white shirt sparking) was also a standout, his singing particularly refined and diction clear and precise. Michaella Ye Zhang in her roles as Autumn (in fact, all the seasons were impressive), sung with resonant projection, unafraid to lean into the emotive dissonances of Purcell’s music. The ensemble and chorus work was solid, though at times the offstage chorus came through a tad muffled.

The production is a collaboration between the Vocal and Opera Studies Unit and the Historical Performance Unit, with Neal Peres Da Costa leading the Early Music Ensemble (augmented with Conservatorium staff members) in the pit. The ensemble drove the momentum of the show, stopping only twice for ‘tuning intervals’ – gut strings and period instruments being a lot more changeable than their modern counterparts – and the recorder section’s fluttering virtuosity was delightful.

The nature of the work is such that it is difficult to stage without leaving singers idle for long stretches, but this was mostly offset by mimed action and tongue-in-cheek dance numbers. Overall, The Fairy Queen had a lively sense of energy and fun, conjuring the joy and absurdity of Shakespeare’s play.

The Fairy Queen is playing at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music until May 21.


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