Purcell’s “semi-opera” is a response – an elaborate and deliciously well-endowed one – to “an anonymous adaptation” of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – and with as much text as Jonathan Kent included here you might be forgiven for wondering quite when that response would materialise.
The opening scenes are played out at length here within an exquisite Restoration drawing room (designer Paul Brown), its walls lined with showcases of memorabilia, theatrical and otherwise. You can all but hear bewildered opera-goers wondering when the singing and dancing might commence? Patience.
The walls of said drawing room now recede to the night’s enchantments while black-sequined Titania (a rapacious Sally Dexter) leads out her “designer” fairies, winged, chic and darkly capricious. We will recognise them by their Nicole Farhi attire. But by the time the boiler-suited mechanicals arrive - a dubious chorus-line of yellow-page jobbers loudly rallied by Desmond Barrit’s splendid Bottom (with designs on all the parts) and Jack Chissick’s Snout (never without a handful of his business cards) - all bets are off as to the chaos and magic that will ensue. Splendid actors, singers, and dancers share disciplines and it’s open season for flying and special effects as Purcell’s tune-laden masques unfold, musing and elaborating on Shakespeare’s narrative.
William Christie’s buoyant direction of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment rejoices in Purcell’s joyous counterpoint with drums, tambourines, and nutty woodwinds alternating with rosiny strings to convey the abiding spirit of the dance. Kim Brandstrup’s choreography is both discreet and exquisite and the singing variously stylish.
But the show’s the thing and it’s not often you see a director and designer collude so seamlessly, so imaginatively, and so amusingly in their endeavours. In the wake of Puck’s misdirected chicanery “The Masque of Seduction” brings mounting naughtiness, the spring sprung to the strains of lovely Lucy Crowe reflecting on the exquisite pain of the lovelorn and Carolyn Sampson harvesting Purcell’s most gorgeous embellishments. Upon her summoning of “Ye Gentle Spirits of the Air”, a giant haystack spills out a Benny Hill-like wench insisting “No Kissing at All” before the whole scene goes arse over tit with a bevy of rambunctious bunnies behaving badly.
But there is pathos, too, as Carolyn Sampson attends the score’s most enduring gem, “The Plaint”, tellingly finding refuge at Theseus’ knee and in so doing softening his heart to allow the lovers their true partners. A truly magical moment.
Of course, the God of Marriage, Hymen – a harassed vicar with a Sainsbury’s bag (excellent Andrew Foster-Williams) – is sceptical. But even he comes round. And so should you. Call daily for returns.