Music: Proof that real men can be good fairies

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The Independent Culture
SHAKESPEARE had a rougher ride in Restoration theatre than he does today. Bardolatry was undeveloped. Samuel Pepys dismissed A Midsummer Night's Dream as "insipid". And when Purcell adapted the Dream into the speech/song mix of "semi-opera" he had no qualms about using a bowdlerised text that strayed off the subject. Result: a piece, The Fairy Queen, that gives you Shakespeare (sort of) in spoken text, alongside a sequence of musical masques so un-Shakespearian that they relocate the story to a Chinese water-garden.

Given that degree of licence, it's only reasonable that The Fairy Queen should be in perpetual open-season for stage directors to do as they please, and David Pountney at ENO doesn't hold back. Discarding the spoken text entirely, he decants Shakespeare's story into the masques and turns the piece into an all-music show; in other words, no longer semi-opera but the real thing.

One slight problem is that the Restoration theatre didn't want the real thing, and upheld the speech/ song balance as essential to the nation's sperm count. Music was emotional while speech was of the mind. And the respective gender implications were spelt out in a pamphlet of 1702, which denounced the Italians as "an effeminate Nation" on the grounds that "their Theatres are meer musick meetings". "In England, where Poetry has been in perfection", continued the writer, "our Passions are more manly." And had he been around to see this text-denuded Fairy Queen, no doubt he'd have considered his point proven.

It's absurdly camp: a rocky-horror romp with almost everyone in drag (except the one role that Purcell asked to be played in drag), and so much re-invention by Pountney (new characters, new names, surreal gags with spin-dryers and stuffed rats) that it gets messily confusing. Not least, when the action fails to fit the songs that frame it. But in many ways it's a fair response to the outrageous fantasy of Restoration masques: a feast of manic brilliance, riotously entertaining and erotic, too, with sensuous imagery and an Indian boy (source of the quarrel between Oberon and Titania) who has all too obviously grown up. Pountney casts him as a dancer, lithely underdressed. And dance is central to the whole show, with expressive contributions from the said boy, Arthur Pita in a loincloth, Simon Rice as Puck, and Alan Vincent as one of the lost lovers (who also has a tendency to lose his clothes).

The singing is a joy, with Yvonne Kenny combining beauty and definition in the title role, Susan Gritton spreading pure enchantment as one of the lovers, and delightful cameos from countertenor Ryland Angel and tenor Mark Le Brocq.

Conductor Nicholas Kok transforms the ENO orchestra into a wholly credible baroque band, using modern instruments with stylistic sensitivity. And across the board, this Fairy Queen is a real company achievement; closer to the spirit than the letter of what Purcell wanted, but that's the better option, surely, for a modern audience.

If the spirit of Verdi's intentions for Aida was anywhere in the vicinity of Earl's Court last weekend, I didn't notice it: just another bad case of pyramid-selling, much like the last time Harvey Goldsmith staged Aida here except with new technology in the shape of virtual set-design. Nothing you see is real. It's all projected in a complex, ever-changing light show: disco-Verdi. If it came with disco-energy I wouldn't mind. But it becomes apparent that the lights (impressive in themselves) are merely camouflage for the most vacuous display of non-production you're ever likely to be charged pounds 36 to witness (on a stiff seat with poor sightlines and no surtitles).

It's hard to believe the performance is live - it feels like a pre-recorded son et lumiere - and the truth is that hardly anyone on stage is actually singing: they're all silent extras feeling for their place-marks, looking anxiously along the line for somebody to tell them what to do. The genuine chorus is backstage, horribly amplified. And the soloists (I saw an undistinguished B-cast) might as well be backstage, too, for all they contribute dramatically. I thought at first they might be miming to a disc. If only ... Freni/Karajan on EMI would cheer things up considerably.

The conductor, I should add, was someone called Guiseppe Raffa who, according to the programme note, has been compared with Karajan. It didn't say what for.

Ivo Pogorelich is a pianist who has been compared with the greatest of his kind - usually Horowitz - ever since he conspicuously failed to win the 1980 Chopin Competition and caused one of the jurors, Martha Argerich, to protest, "This man is a genius." With those few words his career was launched, and pretty well defined. Now touching 40, he still carries with him echoes of protested genius. He plays like an outsider rattling the doors of the establishment. And although the fiery arrogance has settled into brooding introspection, he remains a pianist with Attitude - mostly sullen - that doesn't communicate very graciously, or winningly, on the concert platform.

His recital at the Festival Hall on Monday felt like someone suffering a mass intrusion into private dealings between himself and Chopin (the 24 Preludes), Rachmaninov (the first Moment Musical) and Granados (three Spanish Dances). The Preludes were distracted, halting, with exaggerated (largely slothful) tempi and grotesquely weighted emphasis on right- hand melodies against left- hand accompaniments. The Moment Musical was not, especially. The Dances barely danced. And if that had been it, I'd have left the hall extremely disappointed.

But Prokofiev - a chunk of Romeo and Juliet and the Third Sonata - saved the day, in playing that made more effort to address the audience and woo them. When he makes that effort, Pogorelich has a lot to say - in a distinctive, cultivated, critically disarming voice. If he could only ditch the protest and just be that genius, instead of carrying it like a burden, he'd be more attractive and, I think, a better artist.

An attraction of Ian Bostridge's Lieder singing is the way he carries the burden of pain and bitterness in a cycle like the Schumann Dichterliebe with such depth of feeling, but so little histrionic fuss. And at the Wigmore Hall on Tuesday it was masterly: direct, clear and honest, the emotion shot like arrows from the soul.

This is for me the very voice of Schumann's poet: pure and vulnerable, with a naked hurt that pleads through "Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen" (where Bostridge is the living image of the "sad, pale man" in the text), and scorches the terminal consonants of "Ich grolle nicht". It comes with an extraordinary responsiveness to text; and with a sense of such complete surrender to the moment that, like us, he never quite knows what will happen next - especially at the end of songs when the piano takes over with one of Schumann's long, emotionally wandering perorations.

Julius Drake was the accompanist on Tuesday and a dream partner; heavy on the pedal, but so wonderfully ad idem with his singer that they seemed to sweep through the entire span of the cycle in a single breath. I've never heard this cycle fashioned into such seamless coherence; and the end almost suggested it would turn full circle, back to "Monat Mai". It didn't. But I'm sure no one would have minded if it had.

'The Fairy Queen': ENO, WC2 (0171 632 8300), Sat.

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