The English Masque is a curious musical animal, and Purcell’s semi-opera The Fairy Queen (March 30 at the Joseph Stone Auditorium) particularly so. With its mixture of high-Baroque artifice and Restoration buffoonery it demands both courage and imagination from its director. Following earlier success with King Arthur, though, the work was chosen for this year’s Umculo-Cape Festival (the brainchild of Shirley Apthorp and an international music organization supporting lasting social change through music in South Africa). Once again a large number of mostly black schoolchildren comprised the well-trained, enthusiastic chorus, and the solo parts were sung by South African singers—some experienced, others comparatively new to the opera stage.
Sensibly, no attempt was made to include anything from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, though the bare bones of the play were acted out during the 70 minutes of music extracted from Purcell’s two-hour score. The 20 or so roles in the original were whittled down to eight solo singers, with some inevitable musical casualties. It seemed a particular pity to lose the magical ‘Secresie’ song; and to give the most famous of all the numbers, ‘Hark! how the echoing air’, to a tenor instead of a soprano seemed simply perverse. But all things said and done, it was the kind of occasion where one laid aside one’s keener critical faculties to understand and appreciate the positive effects of this kind of community project.
As in the previous Umculo production, musical direction was in the hands of the Dutch conductor Gerben Grooten, who is now based in Pretoria and devotes much of his time to South African community projects. He presided over an excellent period band made up of musicians culled from such eminent sources as La Scala, the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, the Trondheim Soloists and the South African National Youth Orchestra. The German director Robert Lehmeier made the most of multum in parvo, and Michael Maxwell’s sparse but imaginative lighting helped transform an otherwise bleak, black stage into something a little more magical.
There was some fine singing from the three leading ladies, Zandile Gwebityala (Titania), Brenda Thulo (Hermia) and Melissa Gerber (Helena), efficiently supported by Mlamli Lalpantsi (Demetrius) and Ronald Melato (Lysander). Jonathan Watkins, who replaced Derek Lee Ragin as Oberon, needed a more commanding regal presence and better-focused tone, while Charles Ainslie (the Drunken Poet) could have projected his well-placed baritone better. Sandile Mabaso was a genial Puck; though curiously costumed as a cross-dresser in high heels, his few vocal contributions showed an attractive and easy tenor. An imaginative touch was to have him use a large King Protea (Protea cynaroides, South Africa’s national flower) instead of the prescribed Shakespearian ‘pansy’ to dispense the necessary sleeping potion.