A scene from Kent's The Fairy Queen from its Paris run
Photo: Pierre Grosbois
William Christie is back at BAM in New York this week. After 20 years of presenting Baroque theater and concert works there, he’s returned with Purcell’s The Fairy Queen
in a 2009 Glyndebourne production. With an intervening three hundred years of opera history, it may be easy to forget that Baroque composers like Purcell were responsible for some of the original mash-ups. And so it is with The Fairy Queen
which is neither fish nor fowl in the world of music theater. There is a play. In fact a reasonable adaptation of a very good one – Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream
as seen by late 17th-century eyes. Mixed in between the scenes are a number of beautiful songs sung by both chorus and soloists. The musical numbers often occur as masques – brief entertainments on allegorical themes often presented for the amusement of characters within the larger play itself. The masques never move the plot forward or contain any material directly relevant to the characters or plot of The Fairy Queen
. And yet this over four hour evening seems to fly by despite the disjointed nature of the work.
This is mostly due to the exquisite playing from Les Arts Florissants and Christie who gave their typically spectacular period performance. The vocalists were also solid across the board including a heavenly Lucy Crowe as Juno. But as important as the music was, Jonathan Kent’s staging brought some “period practice” to the evening as well. The time period of the proceedings on stage were mixed. While there were many 17th-century costumes and wigs to be seen, Peter Quince and his players were all in modern day street clothes. Oberon and all the fairies were in tailored black suits with matching wings. The action took place in a single exploded room lined with cabinets of curiosities. However, Kent’s focus on the importance of spectacle during the musical segments clearly honored the spirit of the masques. Gods drop from above on golden horses while men in drag erupt from haystacks in comic amorous pursuits. In another segment the chorus appears dressed in giant bunny costumes and fornicates during a song about chastity. So, while it may be contemporary in its content, Kent’s production couldn’t have more Baroque spirit.
It's all great fun to look at. I would be remiss not to mention that the actors were well cast and kept the non-musical segments up to snuff with the music. The cast includes a wonderful Desmond Barrit as Nick Bottom, and a mysterious Finbar Lynch as Oberon. Everyone could be heard clearly and the comic moments went off without a hitch. The Fairy Queen
is one of those pieces that today seems to work better in segments or just as a concert piece without the play. That Jonathan Kent and William Christie have put together such a coherent argument to the contrary is in evidence now at BAM. Luckily, there is one more performance on Saturday if you’re so inclined.