In recent years the enterprising Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble has brightened the usually arid weeks of August in New York City with some worthy operatic showcases for young singers. This year’s “A Summer of Shakespeare” opened this past weekend with an ambitious and satisfying production of The Fairy Queen, Henry Purcell’s glorious if challenging gloss on A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the East 13th Street Theatre right behind Union Square.  

When Purcell died in 1695 at the age of 35 (or 36), he had completed but a single opera: the short but perfect Dido and Aeneas. Until the vaunted 20th century renaissance of English opera, the composers who followed him work left few works that held the stage—other than Gilbert and Sullivan, that is. So it’s not surprising that over the past few decades much attention has been paid to Purcell’s so-called “semi-operas.” These are curious hybrid pieces: plays such as John Dryden’s King Arthur for which Purcell wrote extensive incidental music. At the time prominent composers often would write music for plays: Purcell himself contributed a song or two or some instrumental music to works by Aphra Behn, William Congreve, and Thomas Shadwell, among many others.

But the “semi-operas” contain extended scenes or “masques” that would be inserted at opportune points into the drama. The difficulty today is that probably none of these plays would be staged were it not for Purcell’s music; however, this is clearly not the case with the best known of these, Shakespeare’s Dream. But Purcell’s work was written in 1692 for a much-shortened anonymous adaptation of the play. So any modern performance must struggle with how much (if any) of the ersatz-Shakespeare to include. Christopher Caines, the director of the Dell’Arte production, cobbled together his own concoction from the original Shakespeare, the Purcell libretto, and a Spanish adaptation of the original, along with a baffling dollop of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest thrown in for good measure.

All in all, it was a pretty useful edition that kept most of Purcell’s music (just one vocal number was cut along with some short instrumental pieces originally used to cover entrances, exits or scene changes) and just enough of Shakespeare to hold it all together, although I wondered if someone coming to this production with no familiarity at all with Dream could have made much sense of it. Caines focused primarily on Oberon-Titania-Bottom and the quartet of quarrelsome lovers; there was a bit of Theseus and Hippolyta to frame the evening (or afternoon—I attended the show’s third performance, the Sunday matinee,) and, mercifully, only a smidgen of the “rude mechanicals”: just enough to introduce Bottom into the mix. And, of course, there was Puck to tie it all together.

Caines’s swift, economical production was set in the Manhattan of today, Central Park in particular, but the show wore that “concept” lightly: there were a few slangy insertions into the text—Puck was to search a lover in the forest wearing Brooks Brothers—and the ragtag mélange of costumes was decidedly contemporary. Its primary strength proved to be a streamlined but effective integration of the Shakespeare frame with the Purcell masques.

When anticipating Dell’Arte’s show, I feared that all the attention would be on musical matters and the chunks of Shakespeare would be indifferently performed—or worse. It turned out that my fears were baseless—the actors were really fine—comfortably and confidently speaking the text with admirable clarity and delineating their roles (most played at least two parts) with verve.

Jason Duverneau was a particularly commanding Oberon working well with his mercurial Puck, the delightful Drew Paramore. Unsurprisingly the always hilarious lovers got much of the abbreviated text, and this unabashed quartet carried off the demanding physical business with aplomb with Cassandra Stokey Wylie particularly uproarious as the “maypole” Helena. A mercurial Seth Shirley made much of the transformation of the stuffed-shirt Lysander into a lovesick puppy; then, in an instant, he was ordering around the mechanicals as a prissy Peter Quince.

As in last summer’s Poppea, Dell’Arte took the extraordinary initiative in securing the services of the young period-instrument ensemble The Sebastians to accompany its singers. Led from the harpsichord/organ by Jeff Grossman, this nine-piece group played with appealing spirit and clarity, some oboe missteps notwithstanding. It might have been nice to have had a few more strings in the “First Music” and “Second Music” that open the piece and particularly the magnificent chaconne that closes it, but one was very grateful to have this fine group in residence.

As in that Poppea, I was again much impressed with the obvious time and care taken by Dell’Arte to ready its young singers to perform 17th century music with its special stylistic challenges which may likely lie outside their previous performing experiences. That the group of ten singers had been well prepared to sing Purcell was always apparent, although some took more easily to the style than others. Despite the generally fine solo singing, things occasionally did go awry in the more complex choral numbers. The English diction throughout was really admirable making the lack of surtitles a non-issue.

It didn’t seem as if this year’s female singers were quite as strong as last year’s Poppea crew, although Noelle McMurtry was always a piquant presence despite misjudging a couple of difficult melismatic passages. Both Tamra Paselk and Elizabeth Westerman displayed vibratos too prominent for my taste which marred some of Purcell’s most gratifying music for soprano, particularly The Fairy Queen’s greatest number “The Plaint” which was unfortunately also blighted by Caines’s disastrous decisions to interrupt its verses with spoken passages and include a cheap sight-gag involving Hermia.

Despite questionable techniques, countertenors Brennan Hall and Raymond Storms clearly knew their way around the style with Storms particularly effective in “One charming night” and as a randy Mopsa where he was nicely partnered by baritone Julian Whitley’s bemused Corydon. Whitley and fellow baritone John Callison provided the afternoon’s most consistently satisfying singing with the latter opening the musical portion of the show with a riotous portrayal of the Drunken (Stoned?) Poet.

Purcell’s quicksilver music for The Fairy Queen which veers from gossamer delicacy to raucous ribaldry and back again is amongst his greatest work, and one is always grateful for the rare opportunity to hear it despite the challenges involved in making it stage-worthy. I have twice experienced William Christie’s flawed attempts; first was a musically exquisite concert performance by Les Arts Florissants featuring, among others, Véronique Gens, Sandrine Piau and Mark Padmore at Alice Tully Hall in 1992. It was unfortunately murdered by my first encounter with the noxious doggerel of Jeremy Sams who had written the excruciating narration linking the musical numbers.

Christie tried again when he visited the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2010 with Jonathan Kent’s staging initially seen at the Glyndebourne Festival. Although many have raved over this elaborate production, I thought it was vulgar and boring, its enormous chunks of Shakespeare indifferently performed. It also wasn’t all that well sung (most but not all of the singers from the Glyndebourne production appeared at BAM) particularly compared to that earlier Tully concert or the essential, superb Harmonia Mundi recording.

One of the more interesting recent attempts to stage The Fairy Queen was a show I saw at Cité de la Musique in Paris in 2011 by Philip Pickett’s New London Consort. No spoken text was used—just Purcell’s music was performed with a narrative gradually evolving of a group of stranded travelers coming together and telling their stories. While not an ideal solution, it demonstrated that the music can live on its own, and the entire performance I attended can be seen (in 12 parts) here:

The production of The Fairy Queen at this summers’ Styriarte Festival by Philipp Harnoncourt and conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt followed a similar Purcell-only approach but based on the webstream (courtesy of Sonostream) it was an ugly, leaden disaster.

Even with its inscrutable inclusion of a pair of talented, hard-working ballet dancers(!), Dell’Arte’s is a wonderfully game production (clocking in at a swiftly-moving three hours) and there are just three more performances through August 23. It alternates with two other Shakespeare settings, six performances of a rare staging of Antonio Salieri’s 1799 Falstaff and three semi-staged ones of Verdi’s more familiar Macbeth.

Photos: Brian E. Long