Last night I went to the local cinema to watch a recording of The Fairy Queen, made at Glyndebourne in 2009 – I suspect as an advertisement for the revival of the production, which is happening at Glyndebourne this week. This was a deeply peculiar experience.
The music comes from Purcell, and contained no particular surprises; played by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, it was of course beautiful. All the opera screenings I’ve been to have been long, so I was ready for the four hours it took. In my musical ignorance, I was less prepared for the action.
The programme described The Fairy Queen as a ‘semi-opera’, which in the 1690s seems to have been some sort of halfway house between straight drama, masque, ballet and opera. The story line was what the Restoration thought Shakespeare ought to have written as Midsummer Night’s Dream, with actors performing a segment of the play, then standing aside for musical interludes and dances in a slightly bewildering sequence. There was no attempt to recreate period dance (which seems a little odd when period instruments are so carefully used), and costumes were from an eclectic mixture of periods and could best be described as wacky.
The modern dance and costumes were interesting and mostly enjoyable (though the cultural mismatches could be distracting), except when a troupe of dancers in rabbit costumes performed a routine in which they did what rabbits do best. It wasn’t the crudity which was the problem, so much as the rather tacky rabbit suits. If the project designers wanted to tease the audience, they should have spent a bit more money on it.
If you fancy taking in some highbrow cross-media weirdness, highly recommended!