What is the point of the The Fairy Queen?

11 Aug

Second visits to something that you really enjoyed the first time often disappoint.  I shared the general adulation for Glyndebourne’s Fairy Queen when it was new in 2009.  The critics seemed to suggest that this revival was as good as ever.  I think I agree about the perf ormance (I saw it on 9th August), but I did find myself doubting why you bother doing the piece.  It felt like a mildly interesting piece of irrelevance that goes on far too long.

It may well be that, in 1692, this was where music theatre was at.  You take an elderly play that’s a bit out of fashion, rewrite it and fit in a whole lot of completely irrelevant songs by the hottest composer around.  You add some wonderful special effects and you have a hit.  I’m not sure what the modern equivalent is, but there almost certainly is one – maybe those musicals that are basically tributes to pop bands.

Fashions have changed.  A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of our favourite Shakespeare plays.  It doesn’t need spicing up.  We have lost the sensibility that makes masques about Apollo, the seasons, Hymen and so forth artistically interesting or relevant.  Purcell is a wonderful composer but, with the exception of one or two very beautiful numbers and a couple of very witty ones, this doesn’t strike me as his best work – it’s not surprising; most of the words that he had to set are seriously bad (and having them next to Shakespeare only heightens your awareness of that).  And they go on for ever.  These days, we need a connection between the play and the musical numbers so that it makes some kind of dramatic whole.  The fact that this piece consciously shies away from doing so caused problems for me.  It’s also hard to recreate the days when theatre-going was less reverential than it is today: you could walk in and out, chat to your neighbour or the orange girl or pick up a prostitute who, the programme told me, would have had a discounted ticket.  There were times when I felt that, perhaps, a short break during each  of the rather long halves of this performance, ideally during some of the more tedious parts of the masques, would have done no harm.

The Glyndebourne programme reminded us that one of the problems with semi-operas was that they pleased neither music lovers nor play lovers. At this performance I got pleasure from both aspects, but I can’t believe I’m the only one who greeted the spoken episodes with relief after an interminable sequence of rather irrelevant masque.  Indeed, one of the joys of the evening was that it reminded me of how good a play A Midsummer Night’s Dream is and how I want to see it again, and complete, soon. The actors that Glyndebourne had assembled were very fine and would have given an excellent performance of the full play.  The spoke the words with real intelligence and wit and Jonathan Kent’s direction was really funny.  But I was in an opera house and it felt odd to feel relief when the music stopped and your heart sink, slightly, when it began again.

This wasn’t because the music was bad, but because if felt so irrelevant. Seeing it a second time, Kent’s production seemed slightly more laboured  His direction was at his best for the play and where Purcell is best – the Mopsa duet and the following aria and in the wonderful lament – and where he allowed invention to take over and he could go for the broad laughs – the copulating bunnies and the Adam and Eve scene were pure genius. Elsewhere everything was handsome and lavish even though it frequently became quite predictable.  Paul Brown’s very handsome sets were a bit heavy and limited the options for stunning effects – they could only go up or down and the hydraulic lift did overtime.  Moreover, sitting in the Upper Circle, it looked very much as though it had been designed with only the Stalls and Stalls Circle visitors in mind – you saw a bit much of the lift.

The music was good. Sometimes I wondered if Laurence Cummings, the conductor, loved it too much: the sleep episode dragged a bit and worked a bit too effectively – both my partner and I nodded off.  The playing and the ensemble were of a very high quality.  The singing was uniformly excellent with Carolyn Sampson particularly fine: it was a really good show-case for Glyndebourne’s younger singers.

I’m conscious that this reads rather grudgingly. Glyndebourne had prepared this with immense love and unstinting resources.  I suppose it’s right to do Fairy Queen every now and again to see whether someone can make this deeply flawed, impossible piece work.  Kent’s production probably gets as close to the spectacle and spirit of the original as you can these days and made for a beguiling festival event.  It deserved its revival. He couldn’t alter the fact, however, that it’s very difficult to feel that it’s a good work or that with our appreciation of Midsummer Night’s Dream, there’s much point to The Fairy Queen.


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