opera The Fairy Queen Crass? Vulgar? Magic! Nick Kimberley on ENO's dream production of Purcell

The Purcell tercentenary celebrations have subjected the composer's stage works to all kinds of treatment, but nothing so crass and vulgar as David Pountney's new English National Opera staging of The Fairy Queen. Well, no one ever accused Pountney of subtlety, but the fact that the show is wonderful suggests that Purcell is big enough to withstand, perhaps even demand, rough handling and nothing that we see sins against the spirit of the piece, which has its own delightful crassness and vulgarity.

The Fairy Queen was written as a sequence of masques to be inserted into a performance of a bowdlerised text of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and estimates of how long a complete performance would run vary between four and six hours. That's rather longer than we feel comfortable with these days, nor would we take too well to hearing what was done to Shakespeare's text back in 1692. Yet a performance within the original play is not quite right either.

Something has to be done if The Fairy Queen is to have a stage-life and Pountney does it. All of it. Just as Purcell's masques sometimes relate to Shakespeare, at other times go their own merry way, so Pountney devises a story for the masques to tell, a story blending Shakespeare, Purcell and Pountney in unequal measure. Men dress up as women, poets get drunk and try to take over the conductor's podium and - you're not going to believe this - the fairy queen herself falls in love with a donkey. With a seething mass of non-singing supplementals, choreographed by Quinny Sacks, the eye is never sure what to watch, but Pountney's showmanship ensures that, wherever we look, there is something worth seeing.

Titania (Yvonne Kenny) and Oberon (Thomas Randle) argue over the Indian Boy (the dancer Arthur Pita) while all around them all kinds of amorous mayhem break out. Jonathan Best's Drunken Poet, a masterpiece of exact comic observation, is not too far gone to attract Michael Chance's Dick; Janet and John get it on; and only Richard Van Allan's Theseus, a "curmudgeon" bearing a marked resemblance to Michael Tippett, seems unwilling to join in the fun.

It's all a long way from authentic baroquerie, yet the spectacle's sheer exuberance might not have gone amiss at the Dorset Garden Theatre 300- odd years ago. Robert Israel's sets and Dunya Ramicova's Carry On Camping costumes play their part and Quinny Sacks's choreography keeps the comic heart pumping. None of it would work if the performers were anything less than completely committed.

The cast list runs to a page-and-a-half in the programme and there wasn't a dull performance to be seen: Pountney is a dab hand at rallying huge numbers. Not all the singing was as crisp as modern Purcellian practice demands and Nicholas Kok's conducting sometimes allowed the rhythms to slacken, but all of that will improve as the run progresses. Just when Purcell was in danger of being embalmed as National Heritage, this riotous production comes to rescue him from that fate far worse than death.

In repertoire to 23 Nov at ENO, London Coliseum, WC2. Booking: 0171- 632 8300

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