When Glyndebourne invited Jonathan Kent and Paul Brown to realise Purcell’s ‘semi-opera’ The Fairy Queen, it was with slight trepidation, as they had no idea how this amalgam of Purcell’s music and filletings from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream would go down.
Both men are loose cannons, and the piece is uncategorisable, with too many masques and too much talk to qualify as opera in the conventional sense. But the result was the most splendidly off-the-wall creation this sedate establishment had ever seen, creating worlds beyond worlds with flying horses, giant cascades, and references to Max Ernst and The Lord of the Rings, and including in its climactic masque a stage-full of inventively-copulating rabbits. The show’s one weakness lay in the sections of spoken dialogue: whenever actors came on in place of the singers, the temperature dropped perceptibly.
With the Baroque maestro Laurence Cummings now at the helm things have settled marvellously, and the spoken sections have as much fizz as the musical ones. Fuelled by lust and disgust, the fights among the mismatched lovers carry a powerful comic charge, while the mechanicals - initially encountered as an army of squeegee-wielding window cleaners, before they scramble into drag - are a pantomime in themselves; the regal dignity of Penny Downie’s Titania makes her sensual infatuation with Christopher Benjamin’s Bottom all the more amusing, while Jotham Annan is a lithe and charismatic Puck.
Supported by the brilliance of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and by Kim Brandstrup’s discreetly inventive choreography, and drawing strength from the beauty and mischief of Brown’s designs - who else would have a chaste Cranach-naked Eve take a bite out of her apple and turn into a pole-dancer? - the young singers give an inspired ensemble display.
David Soar’s delivery of Winter’s aria has magnificent resonance, while Carolyn Sampson - whose voice and presence are always recognisable, no matter what her disguise - provides three blissful moments of transcendence. The first comes with her paean to sleep, as Titania hangs immobilised and drugged in a giant spider’s web; the second is her hymn to harvest, with the third being a heart-stopping performance of ‘O, let me weep’.
But in this wonderful show, which ends with the audience being showered with heart-shaped petals, no sadness lasts for long.