Purcell – The Fairy Queen / Glyndebourne 2009 (1)

I have achieved what I hope will remain a personal best this year in terms of musical adaptations of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I have seen three. Two live (the Met’s Enchanted Island and a ballet with music by Mendelssohn) and this one, on DVD. I feel that I have rehearsed the concept of ‘musical adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream‘ very thoroughly. I do not claim to understand it in a deep and profound way. But I do know everyone’s names now.

This work of Purcell’s that we get here is not an opera. It’s a late 17th century adaptation of Shakespeare’s play with extended dances and musical interludes. One of those baroque works where you have a story, but you also have a lot of stuff that’s there just as an excuse for costumes and music, like the allegory of the four seasons, or the appearance of Apollo and Juno at the end. For me, the draw was Purcell’s music and one other thing that I’ll get to in a minute. But primarily Purcell. Also, there’s an Easter Bunny orgy in Act III, during a masque representing spring. I did not know about this going in. I expect that it will be haunting my nightmares for at least a week (all those little bobbing tails!) but this is the thing about opera. There are always risks.

So, this is a play with music. The play component of it is distinct from the musical component, in that the main characters in the drama – Hermia, Lysander, Helena, Demetrius, the king, Hermia’s father, Titania and Oberon, Puck, the group of working men – are actors rather than singers. With one or two brief exceptions, they do not sing. I will admit to skipping bits of the drama, because I knew what would happen, and the specific manner in which it happened in terms of acting and nuance and all that wasn’t something I was deeply concerned about. There’s nothing wrong with the acting or the actors here, but I wanted to hear Purcell.

(For the record: Hermia and Lysander are in love. Demetrius loves Hermia, and her father directs her to marry him or take the veil. Helena loves Demetrius, who used to love her but has since changed his mind. Hermia and Lysander run away into the woods, intending to go to Lysander’s aunt’s house, but they don’t make it. Before they go, they tell Helena their plan, who tells Demetrius, and those two chase off after the first two. Meanwhile, Oberon and Titania, king and queen of the fairies, are having a tiff over a human child that Titania took. They both want it. So Oberon decides to humiliate his wife by giving her a potion, as she sleeps, that will make her fall in love with the first thing she sees on waking, which will be enough of a distraction that he can take the child back, and also teach her a lesson. Oberon has also spotted Helena and Demetrius arguing, and tells Puck to use this same potion to fix things among the four human lovers. Mischief is so much a part of Puck’s nature that inevitably he does it wrong, and confusion and hurt ensues. Meanwhile, Titania has gone to sleep, woken up, and fallen in love with Bottom, who is one of a group of doofus workmen/amateur actors who have stumbled into the forest. Bottom also by this point has the head of an ass. Sounds like a wicked big mess, but it all works out in the end.)

Most of the singing parts in this work are either choruses of fairies or individual allegorical characters or classical divinities – the four seasons, Sleep, Mystery, Night, Apollo, Juno, and so on. It’s a little like Handel’s Alcina in that the music is associated with both magic and order. It’s both illusion and harmony.

The production is designed to evoke both the time and place in which the work originated and the feel or mood that the piece would have evoked in its audience. So you get a mixture of baroque touches and modern ones. The story opens in a late 17th-century drawing room with three big French windows at the rear. Here the humans, in costumes appropriate to 1690 or so, have the argument about who Hermia is going to marry, and Hermia and Lysander hatch their plot to run away. This room, with the lights off, also represents the forest – the four young mortals enter through the windows at the rear, and as they do are stripped of their seventeenth-century clothes; they spend the rest of the story wandering about in slips and shirts and modern trousers. Sometimes the back of the room disappears to reveal the sky, but in general, this is literally a well-contained, domestic sort of fairy story. There is disorder – but doesn’t take much to banish that disorder at the end.

(Next section here.)

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