As a contemporary critic put it: "Some come for the play and hate the musick, others come onely for the musick, and the drama is penance to them, and scarce any are well reconciled to both."
The words of Roger North, the 18th-century polymath who witnessed Italian opera's conquest of the London stage, hold true in Jonathan Kent's staging of The Fairy Queen. Written in an age of excess and uncertainty, of fascination with the exotic and the erotic, and bolted on to actor-manager Thomas Betterton's bowdlerisation of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Purcell's score still dazzles and beguiles. Yet semi-opera is a tricky form. With no definitive script, the balance of speech to music remains contentious, open to modern rewrites, deft editing, or, as Kent has chosen, a kitchen-sink approach that will have those who have come for "the musick" itching to hear more of it.
As the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment springs to life under William Christie, all scurrying strings, piquant oboes and brisk tambourines, Paul Brown's designs open out from a Stuart drawing room. Classical curios, rogue taxidermy and brilliant chinoiserie illustrate the crazes of Purcell's time while the periwigged Athenians debate the marriage prospects of Helena, Hermia, Demetrius and Lysander. Led by Desmond Barrit's Bottom, the Rude Mechanicals are contract cleaners who dance with vacuum and brush. But as night falls, the walls recede and fairies emerge from the cabinets: stripping the eloping lovers of their period costumes, pinching Bottom's Drunken Poet, and commanding the nightingales to serenade their mistress. Even proud Titania (Sally Dexter) needs her beauty sleep, and is wrapped in a giant spider's web as treble and bass recorders shadow the strings in the Entrance of Night (Carolyn Sampson), as Secrecy (Claire Debono) and Mystery (Ed Lyon) conjure the sweetest of dreams, and as Sleep (Andrew Foster-Williams) discreetly draws the masque to a close.
With playing of this vivacity, intimacy and character, sinuous choreography (Kim Brandstrup) and often charming singing and acting, it seems churlish to complain. An emphasis on the spectacular is authentic enough. But the disunity and distraction that North noted in his critique of semi-opera is compounded. Instead of taking one idea and developing it, Brown throws image after image at the most delicate music.
The spider is joined by a giant poppy, while Sampson has a pillow stuck to the back of her head, dulling the shine of her voice, though not the elasticity of her phrasing. It takes almost two hours to transform Bottom, drug Titania and reach the bucolic drag-act of The Masque of Seduction, which closes with a lapine Kama Sutra as the bunny-suited chorus vigorously illustrate the "thousand, thousand ways we'll find to entertain the day". Acts IV and V offer a subtler balance, particularly in the baroque stylings of The Masque of the New Day. Even so, mugging, spectacle and vulgarity (Adam and Eve reimagined as libidinous chavs, karaoke surtitles) prevail, in sharp contrast to a score that is infinitely kinder to human dreams and foibles, infinitely more sophisticated, infinitely sexier.
There are no special effects in John Cox's Fidelio. Gary McCann's designs contrast the sombre clothes of 1789 with a bleak hemi-circle of caged walkways, a concrete watchtower, and three storm-drains from which the subterranean prisoners emerge, blinking at the light, before wandering dazed through the fallen poppies of Garsington Manor's flower garden. It's a dangerous moment, almost naive in its simplicity, and the prisoners' rags are Pythonesque in their decrepitude. But under the opalescent stillness of Beethoven's music, it's one of several moments when you start to think that this near-plotless opera is the greatest ever written. As Leonore, Rebecca von Lipinski conveys the heroine's fortitude and ardour in dark, gleaming tones. Sergei Leiferkus (Don Pizarro) has lost a little flexibility with age but there is no doubt that the two characters who are most crucial to this debate on liberty, equality and fraternity are his and hers. Half-rebuked for his complicity, half-comforted for his weakness, Frode Olsen is the hapless Rocco, Peter Wedd the anguished Florestan. With Pascal Charbonneau and Claire Ormshaw as Jaquino and Marzelline, this is a strong ensemble. But the stars are Douglas Boyd and the orchestra, who play with unerring confidence and translucency, in tempi that range from the blistering to the near-motionless.
Bohuslav Martinu's anniversary has been all but forgotten in the rush of Purcell, Handel, Haydn and Mendelssohn celebrations. From October, Jirí Belohlávek and the BBC Symphony Orchestra will be exploring his symphonies. Until then, Garsington has the monopoly with Martin Duncan's Dr Seussian production of Mirandolina. Neo-classical in style, it's a mildly amusing comedy in which the eponymous landlady (Juanita Lascarro) campaigns to win the affections of the misogynistic Cavaliere of Ripafratta (Geoffrey Dolton), before settling instead for her puppyish manservant Fabrizio (Daniel Norman). There is some lovely writing for woodwind, and some gleeful campery from Mark Wilde and Andrew Slater as Mirandolina's other suitors, the spendthrift Count of Albafiorita and the impecunious Marquess of Forlimpopoli. As an example of how easily Martinu adopted different styles, to the point of almost disappearing, it is of interest. Nonetheless, I can think of more nourishing ways to spend an evening.
'The Fairy Queen' (01273 813813) to 8 Auguat; 'Fidelio'/'Mirandolina' (01865 361636) 3/5 July