Bless thee, Bottom! Thou art translated! This week’s desecration of the Bard is a particularly delightful one, Purcell’s exceedingly obscure semi-opera The Fairy Queen. It’s a spectacular, epic, and magical production from the Glyndebourne Festival, but leave the Glyndebourne dress code at home and find a plaid shirt, it’s at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
It’s an unusual piece, and BAM astonishingly does not provide any program notes (the Les Arts Florissants discography is nice, but a few paragraphs of history would be better). But luckily I did my homework so here are the basics. Semi-operas were popular in London in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, before Handel and Porpora moved in and converted the British to full-blown opera. They consist of a full spoken play performed by non-singing actors which is periodically interrupted by songs and extended masque-like interludes in which singers and dancers appear and do their thing, somehow prompted by the plot. The music and dance don’t advance the story, they add atmosphere. So these pieces are somewhat slow-moving and LONG. This one is more or less uncut, and runs around four hours, around 50/50 semi- and opera. If you saw Mark Morris’s production of Purcell’s King Arthur at the City Opera a few years ago, you just saw the music, the play was eliminated entirely.
The Fairy Queen, dating from 1692, despite all appearances, is not based on Spenser but a much more familiar source, Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. The play, though, was rewritten by an anonymous late seventeenth-century playwright: the Greek references are removed, it is somewhat condensed (so long, Hippolyta), and somewhat rearranged. But most disconcertingly if you know that Shakespeare, many of the lines have been changed to regularize the meter, take out the obscure references, and sometimes un-Shakespearize it. If you know the play, it’s weird to hear familiar lines mixed with new ones. For example:
You spotted snakes with double tongue,
Thorny hedgehogs, be not seen.
Newts and blindworms, do not wrong.
Come not near our Fairy Queen.
Now joyn your Warbling Voices all,
Sing while we trip it on the Green;
But no ill Vapours rise or fall,
Nothing offend our Fairy Queen
As you may guess, a common criticism of semi-operas are that the plays aren’t any good, despite the delight of the music. That was what Mark Morris said when he cut Dryden’s play entirely from King Arthur. Also, that they don't hold together. But a semi-opera is a complete work in some form, not just blocks of music alternating with blocks of text. Even though the two don’t interact in Rogers and Hammerstein fashion, they still comprise a whole of a sort--one that this production proves is theatrically viable. Seeing a semi-opera with both play and music in place is rare, and would be worth seeing even if this one weren’t so good in itself.
Another reason semi-operas died out was they were so expensive to produce. The Fairy Queen apparently was always quite an endeavor to put on, as the Prologue notes:
“But that this Play may in its Pomp appear
Pray let our Stage from thronging Beaux be clear.
For what e’re cost we’re at, what e’re we do,
In Scenes, Dress, Dances...”
The set descriptions show where some of this money went:
The Scene changes to a great Wood; a long row of large Trees on each side: A River in the middle: Two rows of lesser Trees of a different kind just on the side of the River, which meet in the middle, and make so many Arches: Two great Dragons make a Bridge over the River; their Bodies form two Arches, through which two Swans are seen in the River at a great distance.
Sorry, that was just an excuse to quote more 1693 English. Kent and Christie have swans, but no dragons.
Jonathan Kent and William Christie’s production isn’t relentlessly faithful to the original text (it Shakespeares it up somewhat, for one thing), but its liberties aren’t great. Its remarkable achievement is how it balances well-acted text and well-sung and danced music and creates something that is both coherent and entertaining. The lovers are initially period (17th-c), the Mechanicals out of Keeping Up Appearances, the fairies somewhat more current but with wings.
In the forest, the lovers lose their big clothes and, as in Midsummer, enter the world of irrationality--which, broadly speaking, is the world of music. The semi-opera doesn’t allow them to sing, but they do, masque-like, become part of the show. The role of the Drunken Poet in the First Masque is given to Bottom, making the First Masque almost a plot event marking the Mechanicals’ entrance into the forest. The Second Masque puts Titania to sleep, the Third Masque is on seduction, the Fourth on the new day and seasons (yeah, this one is the most tangential), the Fifth on marriage.
The masques are like a ballet in their plot, sometimes narrating a bit but mostly just on the way to the next delight. And the staging is endlessly inventive, steadily building in outrageousness and silliness from the relatively tame early masques to crowds of giant amorous rabbits, trailer trash couples (anti-masquers!), and more surprises that I should not ruin for you. The final Masque of Marriage contains a lament ("O let me weep") that reminds ups how screwed up marriage was back then. FYI, Kent’s "Adam and Eve" was originally a Chinese couple (their Daphne was "Xansi"), who have apparently disappeared for a less offensive, more nekkid, more Cranach-y alternative.
So it’s a lot to take in, and occasionally overwhelming. The actors are all, as far as the program indicated, British, and very good, giving an entertaining, bawdy rendition of this somewhat crooked Dream with appropriately youthful lovers and most of the usual highlights--short jokes, chasing, etc. As any good Bottom, Desmond Barritt is a highlight, the Mechanicals in general a hilariously dim bunch, and their play a truly epic disaster. The play is good enough to not wish we get straight to the music, and that’s saying something.
The music. Les Arts Florissants are an institution, and this piece displays them to great advantage. The orchestra is large and amazingly colorful, and Christie's tempos are quick. The soloists doubled various roles in various masques and were universally good (and stylistically accurate, of course), but my favorites were Emmanuelle de Negri as Night and the lamenter, and Andrew Foster-Williams in a variety of bass-baritone roles. There is also a lot of dancing, which I haven’t yet mentioned because I found it the least interesting part of the show, the choreography (by Kim Brandstrup) struck my uneducated eye as dully athletic. But you get lots of glorious dance music.
The set isn’t quite as extravagant as the above description, but it’s full of surprises. We start in a period study lined with cabinets of curiosities, this room expands to become the forest, the fairies emerging from the cabinets and through the windows and floor. The mini-dramas of the masques are staged like different strange things pulled out of the cabinets too, without adherence to any particular period or theme. It’s elegant and moves smoothly between play and music, and is technically very impressive (nice flying).
So does it tell a story? Eh, not quite, but that isn’t the point. It’s a spectacle, and is appropriate spectacular and diverting, and frequently delightful. Tommasini seems to think that the glam and current touches that make Christie’s productions so exciting is somewhat disreputable, tarting up (he says ”juicing up“) something which is perhaps more properly buttoned-up and without bunny orgies. Nonsense. This is supposed to be exciting stuff, we know people found it exciting then, and to frump it up today when we could be having fun is doing the material a disservice, not to mention the audience. So go enjoy without guilt!
Next: I don’t know! Partenope if I can make it, especially after the encouragement of the commenters below, or possibly nothing until second-cast Tosca on April 17--noch einmal with Luc Bondy. Yes, Armida will also be happening, but probably not until after that!
Jonathan Kent on the staging in the Guardian
William Christie on the music: