The anonymous 1691 adaptor of A
Midsummer Night’s Dream cut out some of Shakespeare’s text,
and added elaborate masque scenes which Purcell set to music. Sometimes the
masque scenes actually have some relation to the events in the play: the scene
in which the fairies torment the drunken poet (in Act 1, added in 1692) can be
understood as a sort of prehistory of the processes of absurd invention that
lead Peter Quince to write the Pyramus and Thisbe skit; and a later masque can
be understood as a monstrous expansion of Shakespeare’s insecticidal
charm (“You spotted snakes with double tongue”). But it would be
easy to listen to all two hours of Purcell’s music without understanding
that it had anything to do with A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The curtain rises, and we are in Shakespeare’s Act 1, with wigs and
costumes in eighteenth-century style, as Athenian justice condemns the love of
Lysander and Hermia; but soon the janitorial crew takes over—it turns out
that Peter Quince and his gang are window washers, theatre electricians,
sweepers, and so forth. All this runs by at spanking pace, with many delightful
touches, as when the scene ends in a blackout from an electrical malfunction,
and we are in the world of Purcell’s first-act masque, the scene with the
drunken poet. The poet is played by the actor who plays Bottom, Desmond Barrit,
a superb comedian, but a mediocre singer, and the scene is funnier when more
strongly voiced. Also, it would make more than to have Peter Quince at the
clavier (so to speak) in this scene, since he’s the poet of the
horny-handed. As in his audio recording, Christie takes enormous rhythmic
liberties with the score (“I’m drunk as I live boys, drunk”),
to brilliant effect, making the poet’s song into a sea-shanty in which
the whole earth is the ship on which the drunkard sways.
For the rest of the semi-opera, we are in a world of dreams shadowing into
nightmares: the fairies have black raggy wings; a giant spider swaths Titania
in silk and dangles her in the air. In the more cheerful masques in the later
acts, there is only occasionally a sense of good-natured fun—more often
there is a certain lurid glare, a frantic, slightly brittle attempt at funning,
as when music celebrating the earth’s generative energies is mimed by
actors in bunny suits madly copulating in many different positions. I like this
effect, perfectly in tune with the play’s sour epilogue (not here
Obe.: Ladies in Dreams shall have their Fortunes told;
The Young shall dream of Husbands, and the Old
Their Youthful Pleasure shall each Night repeat.
Tit.: Green-Sickness Girls, who nautiate wholesom Meat,
How they their Parents, and themselves may cheat.
Obe.: Widows, who were by former Husbands vex’d,
Shall dream how they may over-reach the next.
The only real miscalculation here, I think, is moving of the Pyramus and
Thisbe skit from Act 3 to Act 5. This is, of course, where Shakespeare puts it,
but The Fairy Queen’s climax is supposed be the masque set in
China, a deliberately fake version of an age of old where nobody works and
everybody has a good time all day. This production de-sinifies the masque, for
no good reason: instead of Chinese lovers, we have Adam and an extremely
flirtatious Eve. The benediction of Purcell’s incomparable chaconne
shouldn’t be spread over an audience that has recently laughed at
Bottom’s death scene.
image_description=Opus Arte OABD7065D
product_title=Henry Purcell: The Fairy Queen
product_by=Actors — Titania: Sally Dexter; Oberon: Joseph Millson; Bottom: Desmond Barrit; Puck: Jotham Annan; Hermia: Susannah Wise; Demetrius: Oliver Le Sueur; Lysander: Oliver Kieran Jones. Singers — Juno / Mystery: Lucy Crowe; Spring / First Fairy: Claire Debono; Second Fairy: Anna Devin; Eve: Helen-Jane Howells; Night: Carolyn Sampson; Mopsa: Robert Burt; Summer: Sean Clayton; Secrecy / Adam: Ed Lyon Autumn: Adrian Ward; Phúbus: Lukas Kargl; Drunken Poet: Desmond Barrit; Winter / Sleep / Coridon / Hymen: Andrew Foster-Williams. Glyndebourne Chorus. Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. William Christie, conductor. Jonathan Kent, stage director. Recorded live at Glyndebourne Opera House, Lewes, East Sussex, 17 and 19 July 2009.
product_id=Opus Arte OABD7065D [Blu-Ray DVD]