"A glorious failure" is my critical verdict on Glyndebourne's first ever staging of Purcell's 1692 semi-opera The Fairy Queen. Glorious because of many of its parts: superb playing from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, attractive settings and costuming, some wonderful singing and some pretty good acting too. The stage looks sumptuous, the baton is in the hands of the ever-genial William Christie and the ambitious production all works like clockwork. And yet…ultimately it fails for me precisely for the reasons (quoted in the Glyndebourne programme book) that have been used to criticise semi-opera ever since the genre was first invented: it is neither true drama nor real opera. What it is instead is an entertaining (and slightly overlong) romp, an extravaganza of an evening that never really comes together into one coherent dramatic and musical whole.
Jonathan Kent's new production makes this all the more apparent by going for broke with practically the entire piece: no discreet cuts here in the acted Shakespearean (and cod Shakespearean) scenes, but the full Betterton (if indeed it was Thomas Betterton who arranged the bulk of A Midsummer Night's Dream around the five masques that Purcell interpolates into the four hours or so of entertainment that he created in his most ambitious work). The problem is that Shakespeare plays have a rhythm all of their own: the comical and coarse language of the mechanicals cuts seamlessly to the elevated blank verse of the court scenes, or the poetry of the exchanges between Titania and Oberon, or between the star-crossed young lovers. But when the third element, the musical discourse of Purcell (whether classical and allegorical or comical and rustic) is added, all semblance of a rhythmical whole is lost. It all goes to make for a very long evening in the theatre.
In this production there is a single framework for the five acts, starting as a dark and richly decorated room in the palace of Duke Theseus, with full height display cabinets on both sides crammed with every conceivable 'collectable', the whole scene evocatively lit through enormous sash windows stage rear. After the opening sinfonia, and the first scenes of the play proper, each wall of the room expands outwards and the chorus begins to inhabit the display cabinets, bringing the room alive even as it morphs into the magical wood near Athens where the bulk of the play is set. There is a great deal to see and to take in – almost too much at times – and the visual interest never flags, with Glyndebourne's sophisticated modern stage technology being used to wonderful effect. Trapdoors appear, lifts descend and ascend, characters fly in and out: the epithet applied to Henry Purcell himself, "scarce inferiour to any in Europe" could certainly be used for the imaginative way that Glyndebourne stages the piece. The spider's web that cocoons a suspended Titania as the plot unfolds around her is just one of a whole series of visually striking images that Kent and his designer Paul Brown conjure up to keep the momentum of the piece going.
The cast of singers is uniformly strong. Lucy Crowe impressed me with her every appearance, always singing with a sure melodic line and keeping her tone securely focused. I liked the bright sound of Claire Debono in her song all about spring, and Andrew Foster-Williams sang with clarity, just the right touch of bass Heft and immaculate rhythm. In keeping with Bottom the weaver's desire to play all the parts in Pyramus and Thisbe, Desmond Barrit not only played the lead mechanical but also sang the Drunken Poet: if his acting performance had a touch of the Frankie Howard at times, his singing performance – well, it was perfectly acceptable but it reminded us of just how good the real opera singers are at their craft! And for me the outstanding sing of the evening came in the fifth act, as Carolyn Sampson gave a wonderfully expressive, restrained and touching account of the plaint, O let me weep. She sang with minimum vibrato, but with true feeling in every note: for a moment the auditorium was completely hushed, before giving her a tremendous ovation. This was the star turn of the evening.
William Christie lives and breathes this music. He conducted with evident love, with tremendous rapport with his team and he made the most of what is often a glorious score (here given in a new edition for the Purcell Society). So, spread right across the whole Fairy Queen experience, there was a great deal to enjoy. But I wonder how often such an elaborate, clearly expensive and ambitious production will be revived and whether it will repay the effort of repeated showings. We shall see.
If it is, the length of the scene with an entire stageful of copulating bunnies is a mistake, despite the roars of laughter they provoked. Bucolic fertility, eh? Let's show them at it like rabbits. The thing is, it's in the music anyway and jokes do not always need administering with a sledgehammer.
A word for the actors, who were extremely good. Hermia and Helena, Demetrius and Lysander made an attractive quartet of young lovers, Sally Dexter was strikingly regal as Titania and Joseph Millson made an elegantly menacing Oberon. The mechanicals were as funny, and as occasionally tedious, as they always are. To see the play once again, as part of The Fairy Queen, gave an irresistible reminder of just how well Britten and Pears adapted its dramaturgy for their own take on the story! Of course, Purcell did not attempt any such thing and we have to take his piece in a completely different spirit. And in that spirit, Glyndebourne proved to me at least that entertainingly, attractively and often gloriously, it fails.
Photo Credits: Neil Libbert
Interview: Jurowski talks about Glyndebourne's 75th Anniversary Season
News: Glyndebourne on Tour announces 2009 season
News: Glyndebourne on Tour appoints Jakub Hrusa as next Music Director
Opera Review: Handel's Giulio Cesare at Glyndebourne