Purcell - The Fairy Queen

Opéra Comique, Paris, Thursday January 21 2010

Conductor: William Christie. Production: Jonathan Kent. Sets & costumes: Paul Brown. Lighting: Mark Henderson. Choreography: Kim Brandstrup. Soprano, Juno: Lucy Crowe. Bass, Coridon, Winter, Hymen, Sleep: Andrew Foster-Williams. Mystery, 1st Fairy, Nymph, Spring: Claire Debono. Fairies: Miriam Allan, Anna Devin, Maud Gnidzaz. Tenor, Adam, Secrecy: Ed Lyon. Tenor, Summer: Sean Clayton. Bass: Callum Thorpe. Soprano, Night, the Plaint: Emmanuelle de Negri. Mopsa: Robert Burt. Phoebus: Andrew Davies. Autumn: David Webb. Eve: Helen Jane Howells. Theseus: William Gaunt. Egeus: Robert East. Hermia: Alice Haig. Lysander: Nicholas Shaw. Demetrius: Gwilym Lee. Helena: Jo Herbert. Starveling: Roger Sloman. Flute: Robert Burt. Bottom: Desmond Barrit. Quince: Paul McCleary. Snug: Brian Pettifer. Snout: Jack Chissick. Titania: Sally Dexter. Puck: Jotham Annan. Oberon: Finbar Lynch. Les Arts Florissants.

It's all very well, I've said it before, writing up an ordinary evening at the opera, but as an amateur, how do you do justice to an extraordinary one? Among the first three reviews I read after this performance (I don't usually read any before), two had the word "miracle" in their headline and another one "théâtre total." By the interval, it was clear to me that we were witnessing something rare and I was fumbling for that awkward and in the circumstances inappropriately ugly and German word Gesamtkunstwerk...

It wasn't clear immediately, though. The first thing you do on arrival at the theatre is check what time the show finishes. In this case, don't ask me why, the Opéra Comique had scheduled an 8 pm start for a piece lasting four hours. So naturally I was thinking "If this turns out to be a bore we'll be out for dinner at half time." After a bad-tempered start, with Christie glaring at the restless audience and crying out "Quand vous voulez!" (he would swivel round to shoot black looks at coughers all evening, as usual, even mouthing "Shut up!" at them; it makes no difference, though) the curtain went up on what might have been a relatively good night at the Comédie Française. That isn't saying much, so my hopes for dinner at a reasonable hour were raised. We saw a handsome 17th-century room in what might be Wren's London, panelled and floored in forest green with gilded mouldings and cartouches, concentric gold circles set in the parquet, three high, many-paned windows at the rear and, to the sides, walls of glass cabinets filled with curiosities: ostrich eggs, bones, coral, Chinese vases and so on. There were high-backed chairs, and the actors wore cream-coloured period costumes and powdered, Purcellian wigs. So far so-so...

Things started to pick up when the 17th century left the room and in came the 21st: the "rude mechanicals," a team of retirement-age cleaners in blue boiler suits, complete with vacuum cleaner, window spray and a yellow, "Caution wet floor" sign, soon waltzing to the music with their brooms and with Desmond Barrit, thick Welsh accent and all, instantly dominating what would be the highest comedy all evening from a team of veterans versed in every trick of their trade. But again, we're all used to the mechanicals stealing the show, so so far it was all pretty normal, though clearly well directed. It was after they pulled the plug on the vaccum cleaner, fusing the lights in a burst of sparks, that in the darkness the magic began. The walls moved apart (they would only close again at the very end), the glass cases swung open, and out of every nook and cranny, from behind the curios, from under the walls and floors, came fairies: sleek, chic (and slightly sinister) London fairies all in black with mourning-black angel wings, dressed for a Notting Hill cocktail party (or was it Spitalfields, in such a Wren parlour?), the men in dark, narrow suits and long Italian shoes, the women in cocktail dreses.

From this point on, Jonathan Kent seemed to take the libretto to heart: "A thousand thousand ways we'll find to entertain the hours." So he and his team did, in a directorial tour de force in which acting and singing, baroque machinery and plausible modern dance merged seamlessly into a coherent whole. We had the 1600s, the 50s and now. We had a golden Phoebus emerging from the clouds on a golden, winged horse; Sally Dexter's husky, commanding yet slightly batty Titania sleeping suspended from a giant spider, wrapped lovingly by her servants in a cobweb shroud; we had lovers - saucy Mopsa a tall, hefty man in drag - emerging from haystacks; the chorus in white bunny suits with pink bibs copulating joyously; Titania and Bottom in a peapod boat (on a circular lake formed by raising the gold rings in the floor) punted by a fish; an Arcimboldo autumn followed by a wondeful, quaking Jack Frost winter with long, twiggy fingers; Cranach's Adam and Eve under a golden tree, gradually losing their innocence and clambering shamefully into clothes at the end; of course a hilarious Pyramus and Thisbe, the best I've ever seen, in which the old troupers pulled out all the stops (and Snug the joiner handed out his business cards to the guests); and a Plaint that reduced even Paris's determined January coughers to a long, moved silence. What might have been a rag-bag of ideas, one after the other, was not: it formed a whole - the Gesamtkunstwerk I mentioned above: Kent carried it off, making semi-opera work anew as total theatre.

It was nice to be reminded how good English acting is and nice to hear so many sweet, open, artfully natural-sounding English voices, trained no doubt first in colleges and cathedrals before moving on to opera. Some, from the chorus, were weaker than others, but in a team piece like this with so much else going on it mattered less, and some were outstanding - I think in particular of the quintessentially English tenor Ed Lyon and the bright, crisp bass Andrew Foster-Williams. Les Arts Florissants in the pit played with a relaxed fluency that sounded as if they, not the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, had already done the Glyndebourne run, and Christie, though looking grim all evening, gave them unusually free rein and, during continuos, didn't conduct at all. And grim though he was, he lightened up for the curtain calls, conducting, as usual, a reprise from the stage, grinning - though not, as he's reported to have done in Glyndebourne, wearing bunny pants.

There are copious numbered excerpts on YouTube and - excellent news - Glyndebourne is due to issue a DVD in the spring of 2010.


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