The ironic lines of Ben Johnson sum up The Fairy Queen, a strange but moving production of the ‘semi-opera’ by Purcell, revived from the 2009 version but with more emphasis on theatrical shocks and surprises like the warren of promiscuous bunnies and Adam and Eve by the Tree of Knowledge which is used as a dance pole by Eve.
The work nearly bankrupted the Dorset Garden Theatre in 1962 when it was first performed however it is safe to assume that this staging by Jonathon Kent, wonderfully fusing baroque elegance and splendour with the most delectable whimsy, won’t have that effect on Glyndebourne.
The beautiful design by Paul Brown is based around a gentleman’s residence in the 17th century, its glass cabinets provide a bridge between the worlds of physical and imaginative, not just to store souvenirs from his Grand Tour. This production uses to brilliant effect the painted moving backdrop, the revolve and the trapdoor which is cavernous. The ravishing stage pictures, which are from Titania’s cocoon-wrapped sleep constantly engage the eye.
Without a performance to equal it all of the display mentioned would be mere window-dressing. Together with an ensemble of singers and actors, Laurence Cummings and the orchestra present Shakespeare’s words and Purcell’s music as if they belong together.
Some of the cast are recognisable, such as the sweet-toned Soprano Carolyn Sampson, playing ‘Plaint’ even more heart-rendering than last time, and Robert Burt as Mopsa/Flute, whose merry cavorting and flirtatious singing has us in stitches.
The light soprano, Clair Debona features, with David Soar’s Hymen and Corydon boding well for his Met debut which is forthcoming. There are some newcomers, notably Samuel Boden and Peter Gijsbertsen, both promising young tenors, and Joélle Harvey who makes her mark as Juno.
The actors sharing the stage are mainly seasoned Shakespearians, led by Penny Downie’s consciously ‘actressy’ Tatania with Christoper Benjamin as Bottom getting the most laughs alongside the hilarious Flute/Thisbe played by Robert Burt. The choreography by Kim Brandstrup gives the callousness of raven-like, black-winged fairies movements which are challenging and evocative, athletic and lyrical.