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The designers of this production were clearly having a lot of fun with it. You get gestures at 17th-century stagecraft, as when, near the end, Apollo is lowered from the ceiling in a chariot, and he’s wearing a period-appropriate wig and suit and is covered in gold paint. You also get plenty of modern touches, e.g. Oberon and all the male fairies wearing black suits; when Adam and Eve they appear at the end (the original writers of this thing truly pulled out all the stops for the denouement) they are first seen in nothing but fig leaves but end up in a hoodie, shorts and flip-flops (Adam) and a tacky dress/blouse/heels (Eve). I think the goal is “remember this is baroque! but we’re not going to be stuffy about it.”
Indeed, the production goes out of its way not to be stuffy, sometimes with mixed results – Carolyn Sampson as the figure of Night sings her aria in a nightdress, which makes sense, and with a pillow affixed to her head, which makes less sense. The pillow is neither beautiful nor eerie nor all that funny nor anything else other than a comedy pillow (and since she’s ‘Night’ rather than ‘Sleep’ and the story of the opera is sort of predicated on things happening at night and people not being asleep, it doesn’t make much sense on that level either).
But there are also some really nice touches. When Titania is made ready for sleep, for example, she is wrapped up in spider webs; a huge spider descends from the ceiling, and she hangs upside down from a thread of silk it produces. I could have done with more slightly creepy fantastical moments like this and less of the inoffensively broad humor that characterizes a lot of it. As the aforementioned easter bunny orgy might suggest, there’s a lot of cheerful raunch in this production – the tone is overwhemingly sweet and a little buffa rather than mysterious. While parts of this production made me smile (e.g. where Oberon, encountering mortals, shrugs and says as if he feels sort of obligated to, “I am invisible”) I found some of the more Benny Hill-esque sequences a little bland and boring.
But it’s worth it to hear some of Purcell’s theater music in the context of an actual theatrical production. I had heard many of the songs and musical interludes before, but mostly in the context of recitals (e.g. that lovely Purcell CD of Karina Gauvin’s, or a whole stack of Emma Kirkby recordings from the 80s, and a few other places too). And there is some very nice music-making in this production. It’s the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under William Christie, and as soon as I heard the introductory music (it’s listed as that in the DVD insert, not as an overture, which it isn’t, quite, I guess ) I started smiling. Purcell’s music is at once serious and witty and dignified and playful – it’s precisely what you want to complement some of the sillier aspects of a theatrical piece like this. The two work well together. And that introductory music is snappy and fun – I particularly liked the soft pizzicato section that you hear as the curtain goes up to reveal the drawing room where the action begins.
At times the actors talk over some of the ‘transition’ or ‘introducing a scene’ music, which I found a bit irritating. Some of the actors, particularly Sally Dexter as Titania, have very interesting and striking speaking voices, but all the same I’d rather hear Purcell, thanks very much. Fortunately there is no talking during any of the singing, because there’s some very nice singing here.
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