- The Washington Times - Monday, April 16, 2007

The Folger Consort took its intriguing program of music from Henry Purcell’s “The Fairy Queen” to the Music Center at Strathmore Sunday evening, to the considerable delight of a nearly full house.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that the consort’s excellent musicians and singers were aided and abetted by noted British thespians Sir Derek Jacobi, Lynn Redgrave and Richard Clifford, who dove in from time to time to present scenes from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

And what might Shakespeare have to do with “The Fairy Queen”? Wasn’t that an allegorical poem by Sir Edmund Spenser? In fact, Purcell’s “Fairy Queen” had nothing to do with Spenser. Its title alludes to Titania, Queen of the Fairies in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Purcell’s composition is, in fact, a musical riff based only loosely on Shakespeare’s play; a “semiopera” some have called it. It is a set of elaborate masques, or entertainments, that employ the Bard as a jumping point into wonderful pastoral vocals, ensembles, dance pieces and instrumental interludes. In turn, each masque alternates with watered-down scenes from the original, possibly provided by an actor named Thomas Betterton (1635-1710), although that is by no means certain.

Whatever the case, Folger Consort Artistic Directors Robert Eisenstein and Christopher Kendall decided to streamline this multifaceted project into a decent running time of roughly two hours, cutting the dance numbers while retaining some of their music and replacing the bowdlerized Shakespeare of Purcell’s original with the Bard’s real stuff. Both decisions were inspired, providing most of the work’s musical highlights while giving the guest actors a chance to shine.

The consort itself was outstanding. Playing as one and without a conductor, the mostly string ensemble was supported by a few winds, small tympani and a pair of valveless heraldic trumpets, which are tough to play but blend in superbly when called upon at dramatic moments.

The consort’s small vocal ensemble and its soloists were delightful as well. Soprano Rosa Lamoreaux, tenor Mark Bleeke, countertenor Drew Minter and bass Francois Loup showed an astounding mastery of Purcell’s tricky vocal figures and grace notes.

Each sang with a lightness and graciousness that lent an air of pure joy to the proceedings, most notably when Mr. Minter and Mr. Loup engaged in a comic banter-song involving two rustics in an awkward romantic moment. Later in the evening, Mr. Loup’s profoundly moving solo, “Now Winter Comes Slowly,” provided a somber counterpoint.

The stage actors, however, provided both gravitas and comic propulsion to the evening. Mr. Jacobi — perhaps best-known to PBS aficionados as the emperor Claudius in the BBC’s immortal “I, Claudius,” and as the monk Cadfael in the eponymous medieval murder mystery series — was sensational as he juggled the roles of King Oberon and the buffoon Bottom, who is turned into an ass and transformed into the love interest of the enchanted Titania. He’s the kind of classic English actor who can instantly transform an evening into magic, and that’s what he did.

Of course, he couldn’t have asked for better sidekicks than Mr. Clifford and Miss Redgrave. The former played a befuddled Peter Quince and an uncommonly elegant Puck, while Miss Redgrave portrayed a regal Titania and also donned a hat to portray members of Quince’s hapless “Pyramus and Thisbe” ensemble. Bravo to all.

**** MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

[STARS: Four (4). Non-repeating event.]

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