What a drag - it's just not Purcell

THE CRITICS MUSIC

WHEN Purcell's Fairy Queen opened at the Dorset Garden Theatre in 1692, the production cost pounds 3,000: 100 times the annual wages of a London labourer and enough to keep the 17th-century equivalent of Terry Dicks in soundbites for a month. More money for the toffs! But as Dicks would know if he wasn't so committed to the arrogant assumption that opera is beyond the enjoyment of ordinary people, money spent on such things isn't money for the toffs at all. Theatres like Dorset Garden only survived because they had a broad appeal across all classes, and the spectacle of Fairy Queen was geared to nothing less. The text demands platoons of gods and goddesses, nymphs, shepherds, dancing monkeys, Chinamen, a dragon bridge, an oriental garden, fountains ... and if I say the piece is based on A Midsummer Night's Dream, you'll appreciate that the derivation is loose. Effectively it's a Lloyd Webber crowd-puller with better music; and it accommodates the ambivalence between high and low art which is so endearing a feature of Purcell's creativity.

The best defence I can offer for David Pountney's new production of Fairy Queen at ENO is that it tries to recreate that ambivalence in 20th-century terms: as a Rocky Horror package of bizarre, outrageous, high-camp, dirt- cheap jokes - and frankly, if they made me laugh I wouldn't mind so much. But they don't. The whole thing resonates with emptiness. And it's the emptier for the fundamental approach ENO has taken to the problem of how you stage Purcellian music drama.

Pieces like Fairy Queen are half-speech, half-music. The speech contains the story, but is usually long- winded and dull. The music is a joy but pure embellishment: most often gathered into self-contained and plotless masques with no more than a marginal, reflective relevance to anything. Accordingly, wise directors trim the speech down to token statements or to a one-man narration, as was the case with the superb King Arthur in this year's Proms.

But Pountney cuts it entirely; and as that leaves nothing but a pointless string of masques, he invents a new storyline - still based on Shakespeare but, er, even more loosely. At its heart is a Michael Jackson lookalike (Oberon, aka Thomas Randle) very taken with the boy attendant of an Elizabeth Taylor lookalike (Titania, aka Yvonne Kenny). The oriental garden has become the back-yard of Chairman Mao; the water-feature a gag about washing machines; and there's a lot of camping around in drag - except, perversely, where Purcell actually calls for it, in the rustic love duet between Mopsa and Coridon. Scored for a countertenor in a frock, Mopsa has been given back his/her trousers, turning the duet into a gay romp. It doesn't work.

Nor does the musicology behind the staging. Purcell's five masques in five acts have been adapted to nine in three. Titania's questionably over- the-top "Plaint" (a probable interpolation by Daniel Purcell that the score can do without) has been retained. And the compromise of mixing modern and period instruments in the pit blurs the textural sharpness of the writing. In fact it's a nonsense having a small band like this in the pit at all. They need to be closer to the singers to establish any real sense of relationship and balance; and although Nicholas Kok conducts incisively and well, you get no idea of the richly variegated spectacle that sound, as well as sight, should supply.

In short, you get no idea of the Fairy Queen at all. It has become something else: beautifully sung by Yvonne Kenny, divertingly choreographed by Quinny Sacks, and sometimes strikingly designed by Robert Israel, but just not Purcell.

Composers who write opera for television are faced with a dilemma. Either they write something that wholeheartedly exploits the medium and has no afterlife on stage, or they write something that looks to its future, ignores the specific resources of the small screen, and isn't really "TV" opera at all. When Benjamin Britten wrote Owen Wingrave for screening in 1971, he tried to hedge his bets and got the worst of both worlds: a piece that looked stiff on the box and lost at Covent Garden two years later. Since then it has been the Cinderella of Britten's mature operas with, to my knowledge, only one UK production - by students at Cambridge.

But for personal reasons I've always been fond of Wingrave: discovering Britten was the great, de- termining event of my childhood, and that TV premiere played its part. So three cheers for Glyndebourne Touring Opera which has at last come to the rescue, with a new production by Robin Phillips. It's not the best staging or the best casting I can imagine. The lighting is inadequate (it doesn't support the dreamlike interconnection of scenes that were Britten's principal concession to TV), the set is a mess, and the problems of the piece are problems still. Wingrave was very much an in-house job for Britten: the roles specifically designed for singers he knew well, the music too dependent on previous scores, and the culture of the piece too close to Turn of the Screw (another Henry James ghost story), but weaker. Wingrave is about a young Victorian who makes a stand against his family's military tradition. Britten read it as an essay in heroic pacifism; but it's hard to make the central character a genuine hero, and at Glyndebourne William Dazely doesn't wholly pull it off. But there are fine performances from Eiddwen Harry, Elizabeth Gale, and above all Steven Page - who takes the role of Mr Coyle with superlative style and handsomeness of voice. It's also magnificently conducted by Ivor Bolton, who delivers the hypnotic, incantatory spell of Britten's score with spine-tingling effectiveness. If Wingrave is an also-ran in the composer's oeuvre, it still outclasses any other opera written in this country since his death. Don't miss it.

Over in Ireland, the Wexford Festival continued this week with a higher quality of stage design than in the past. Wexford sets used to rely on bed-sheets - all part of the charm, of course - but Pacini's Saffo (reviewed last week) is positively opulent, and so is Mascagni's Iris, running in a production by Lorenzo Mariani that stylishly explores the stifling, fin de siecle orientalism of the piece. But what a dreadful piece. Salacious, voyeuristic, Iris revels in the degradation of a 16-year-old Japanese laundry-maid who is abducted into prostitution and throws herself onto a pile of sewage (the text is most specific on this point) where she spends the entire third act dying. Slowly. The most you can say for it is that it gave Puccini a few ideas for Madam Butterfly and Turandot (which are models of taste by comparison). Otherwise, the music is sensationally worthless - all climaxes, no substance - and Michie Nakamaru in the title role sings it more affectingly than it deserves.

Rimsky-Korsakov's May Night, though, is a triumph, with a score that lifts the heart and glorious Russian voices that include a real discovery in tenor Vsevelod Grivnov. And the Russian voices come without the liability of Russian acting. Stephen Medcalf, the director, works a minor miracle in drawing out of these old-Soviet singers beautifully precise, English- tradition acting. So the comedy is clean and sharp - and swift, under the baton of a brilliantly impressive young conductor, Vladimir Jurowski, who at 23 can only have a great career ahead of him. In all, a vintage show. And certainly the best I've seen at Wexford in the past five years.

'Fairy Queen': Coliseum, WC2, 0171 632 8300, continues Tues & Fri. 'Owen Wingrave': Southampton Mayflower, 01703 711811, Fri. Wexford Festival: 00 353 53 22144, all week.

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