The Fairy Queen, English Touring Opera, ETO, Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, October 2011

Purcell for the twenty first century — or perhaps the seventeenth, or the nineteenth — and it’s enormous fun.

All photos Richard Hubert Smith

This semi-opera, based on Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, is a series of masques written by Purcell a century later in the early 1690s, and this production is based on the incarceration in a mental hospital of nineteenth century artist Richard Dadd. His work shows a fascination with fairies and other supernatural subjects, including scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest.

It all starts before the overture as two figures shimmy up ropes in the darkness, hanging there like bats. When the lights come on we see Oberon and Titania camouflaged in leotards of sky blue and clouds against a similar background. Then suddenly they move, daringly high up on the stage. You think this is daringly modern, yet apart from the lighting we could well be back in the seventeenth century, and as soon as the overture is over we are in Dadd’s lunatic asylum.


I’ve seen lots of operas with hospital beds in recent years, but this one really works. One patient is missing, and as he arrives in pyjamas, utterly inebriated, he wanders into the audience, plucks the lady in front of me from her seat, and asks to play blind man’s buff. He then takes her seat and sings to her neighbour before the other performers chase him through the auditorium.

It’s a magical mixture of ribaldry, sensuality and melancholy to Purcell’s effortlessly enjoyable music from the seventeenth century, played on period instruments. The musicians, conducted by Joseph McHardy give full rein to the gambolling lyricism of the music as well as its sadder and more pensive aspects. The period instruments are vital to creating a lightness of touch, which can be utterly lost if we play Purcell as a venerable English composer from hundreds of years ago. Venerable? My goodness he was barely 36 when he died, and anyone who has been to the Globe Theatre will recognise the rhythmic pulse of his music in the dances that the performers put on at the end of the show.

Thomas Guthrie’s production with its designs by Roger Butlin and excellent lighting by Kevin Treacy, has moments of pure enchantment. The acrobats on the ropes were superb, and the mysterious figures of the Oberon and Titania puppets were cleverly manipulated, particularly when they danced. This was an entrancing evening with fine performances from the singers; I particularly liked Nina Lejderman’s voice and Aidan Smith in his role as the drunkard was huge fun.

This is an evening to enjoy, not just to hear the music of England’s finest native-born composer before the twentieth century, but to be connected to four hundred years of English entertainment from the first late Elizabethan age to the second.

Performances continue on tour: Theatre Royal Bath, 17th Oct 2011; Buxton Opera House, 20th Oct; West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge, 27th Oct; Theatre Royal, Lincoln, 29th Oct; Harrogate Theatre, 3rd Nov; Wycombe Swan Theatre, 8th Nov; Snape Maltings Concert Hall, 11th Nov; Exeter Northcott, 17th Nov; Malvern Theatres, 26th Nov. For further details click here.

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