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 within an exquisite Restoration drawing room, 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 the drawing room recede 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 jobbers loudly rallied by Desmond Barrit's splendid Bottom and Jack Chissick's Snout – 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.
William Christie's buoyant direction of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment rejoices in Purcell's joyous counterpoint, 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. "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 before the whole scene goes arse-over-tit with a bevy of rambunctious bunnies behaving badly.But there is pathos, too, as Sampson attends the score's most enduring gem, "The Plaint", finding refuge at Theseus' knee and softening his heart to allow the lovers their true partners.
Of course, the God of Marriage, Hymen – the excellent Andrew Foster-Williams – is sceptical. But even he comes round. And so should you. Call daily for returns.
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