CLASSICAL MUSIC : The text is awful. The action irrelevant. Who says half an opera is better than none?

Martin Hoyle meets David Pountney and Quinny Sacks, the team behind ENO's bid to turn Purcell's Fairy Queen into a dance-drama
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"Two of the footballers are now fairies," Quinny Sacks says. We're speaking theatrically, I hasten to add. Sacks was the choreographer responsible for the exhilarating balletic soccer (with its crucial role for an anthropomorphic ball) in Benedict Mason's opera about our national game, Playing Away. The journey from footer to feerie has been conducted on the stage of the London Coliseum, where English National Opera last night premiered its new production of The Fairy Queen as the company's tribute to an authentic English genius in his tercentenary year. As with Playing Away, Sacks is working with the director David Pountney. And no, neither is saturated with Purcell yet. "We've both been working abroad a lot," Pountney says tactfully.

In fact, it was in the Broadway apartment of Matthew Epstein (ex-Welsh National Opera supremo) that the two launched their collaboration on Purcell's semi-opera. "In October 1992," Pountney recalls. "We'd been working on The Voyage at the New York Met and our heads were full of Philip Glass. We sat down and listened to Purcell's ravishing music and heard actual key changes coming off the CD player..." We giggle a trifle guiltily (The Voyage was a success; Pountney revives it in New York soon).

Problems arise not with Purcell's music, but with the book. As the title suggests, the subject is not a million miles from A Midsummer Night's Dream - not a million, but still pretty far. The Restoration adaptation, possibly done by the producer Thomas Betterton and the choreographer Josias Priest (who had also worked with the composer on Dido and Aeneas), not only condenses Shakespeare's play but adds masques of its own, self-contained and only tenuously related to the original drama. "It's a very bad text," Pountney says. "Obviously the bowdlerised version of a good text, close enough to the original to remind you that you've heard this said better somewhere else. I'm not against rewriting Shakespeare but it would be extraordinary to revive Charles Marowitz's 80-minute Hamlet 200 years later. You might as well rewrite Hamlet yourself; there's no point in re-creating someone else's re-creation."

The first option is to go back to the original, but given the amount of not always immediately relevant music to incorporate, the pruning knife would still be necessary. In Graham Vick's recent staging of King Arthur with Les Arts Florissants, the producer boasted that he had cut not a line of Dryden's original text. Despite the piece's success in both Paris and London (Quinny Sacks loved it; Pountney didn't see it), some of us were amazed at this reverential approach to outdated fustian - one that our great national theatre companies don't usually show to Shakespeare himself. There was a successful Anglo-French production of The Fairy Queen at Aix-en-Provence five years ago directed by Adrian Noble with Royal Shakespeare Company actors speaking the Bard's words and, again, Les Arts Florissants. "But that's Aix. A starlit night in the courtyard of the bishop's palace and you don't mind four-and-a-half hours. But if you're waiting for a tube to Golders Green..."

In concert performances, of course, there's always the possibility of having a narrator provide the dramatic thread. "It's a great admission of failure," Pountney says. "What's the point of performance if it doesn't tell the story? I remember a Fairy Queen with a narrator a couple of years ago. It was excruciating. And it's questionable what we narrate. The last masque of The Fairy Queen takes you to China for no other reason than jolly good scenery. Nobody knew what China was like, so you can do what you like. What do you narrate? There's no linear story. There are purely theatrical reasons and we've found our own equivalent of that. We move by allusion rather than verbiage." Besides, as Sacks points out in her advocacy of full-blown production, "Purcell really pushed the boat out. It went wildly over budget. It was intended to be a grand spectacle."

Christopher Hogwood attempts a compromise at the Barbican next month, when The Indian Queen, The Fairy Queen and Dioclesian are all given in concert, "in a context evocative of the Restoration stage", with the actors Simon Russell Beale, Josette Simon, Janet Suzman and Michael Maloney, and narrations written by Roger Savage and Jeremy Sams. The short season, entitled "Behind the Masque", is preceded by a fully-staged King Arthur under the Dutch baroque expert Ton Koopman, a joint effort between the Guildhall School, the Royal Conservatory in The Hague and the London Contemporary Dance School.

Having opted for a full theatrical treatment, the ENO team, together with the same designers from The Voyage, were faced with the problem of what to do with "59 numbers and no plot", as Pountney puts it. "The masques are written to be performed at the end of the acts of the play: 'You've had A Midsummer Night's Dream, now here's the entertainment.' There's also no cast list," he adds. "We had to decide how to allocate the numbers, so we built up a huge chart."

"The restricted number of singers gave us anchor points," Sacks says. Another indication was the static nature of many of the songs. "Most don't drive the narrative," she says. "They're just lift stops. And out of 59, about 24 to 30 are unsung, just orchestral." And these are pressed into duty to help the story through dance.

The staging is very much a collaboration between director and choreographer. Sacks has abandoned her preconceptions about baroque music: "When you try to break it down for dance, you find it's passionate and witty." "Actually, the idea of making a dance-drama out of this fantastic music was more fun and a more modern way of telling the story," Pountney says. Sacks adds, "It's become more focused on Purcell."

Other considerations included the theatre itself. "The Coliseum's so large for the spoken word," says Sacks. So who took the initiative in shaping what should go on stage? "David instigated a lot of it," she acknowledges. "It evolved gradually with the designers and me. In certain sections, David would chip in with an idea, I'd chip in with another. We've developed a language in which singers and dancers are integrated, the dancers from various techniques." But how have the singers taken to more movement than they may be used to, even on the Coliseum's music-theatre- oriented stage? They show great aptitude. "It's absolutely luxurious to have Thomas Randle prancing about."

The text has been largely jettisoned, the narration given to music and movement; does the choreographer feel herself the last repository of authenticity? "We are living in 1995," she replies a trifle sharply. "I feel like an interpreter. Purcell is a great artist. If you want museum pieces dusted off, fine, but one doesn't expect to see A Midsummer Night's Dream in Shakespearian costume or go to the National and see Chekhov in Russian." Time and place count for everything. "We don't have any agenda to be purist about anything," agrees Pountney. "The orchestra's a compromise, playing at modern pitch. It's the ENO strings playing in baroque style. But there are baroque trumpets..."

"And a couple of funny lutes," adds Sacks. "In a funny kind of way we've stuck to the music. If it says 'Monkey Dance' or 'Dance of the Fairies', that's what we've done, in our own way. If you start to cater for various palates, you end up not being truly centred." I remember Edith Sitwell's famous dictum: "To be eccentric you first have to find the circle."

"A judicious mixture for the acoustic of the theatre," the director says.

"It reflects our production," the choreographer says with satisfaction.

n 'The Fairy Queen': in rep to 23 Nov, ENO, Coliseum, London WC2; booking: 0171-632 8300. 'Behind the Masque': 17- 19 Nov, Barbican Hall, London EC2; 0171-638 8891

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