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The Fairy Queen

Purcell’s adaptation of Shakespeare is a triumph of style over substance

Concocted with royalty in mind, Purcell's The Fairy Queen is a long, lavish, expensive evening's entertainment consisting of an edited, but still five-act version of Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, plus a sequence of dancing and singing items in place of the excised dialogue. It can work
rather well if you have the time and the necessary means, as Glyndebourne proves here.

That this was the production to attend this summer was not in doubt. Only black-market seats are available now. The opera has a vast cast. Besides the 16 actors required for the play, there are 15 solo singers and eight dancers, plus the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Glyndebourne Chorus. It wouldn't be the entertainment it is if anyone doubled up. In opera the ideal is to have performers who can sing, act and dance equally well. In the masque, as this type of entertainment is sometimes called, performers are specialists in their field and, in this production, only the actor Desmond Barrit is listed twice, because he both plays Bottom and sings the stuttering Drunken Poet - stealing the show as the former. His Bottom is a loud, endearingly naive Welshman.

We started at 5pm and finished at 10, with an 85-minute interval for supper during which one unpacked a picnic and ate it on the lawn if one had one. Even the supper in this fantasy Glyndebourne world seems part of the dream. Less dialogue is cut out of Act I than Act V (when the capacity
to follow it is weakest), leaving the opening scenes as Shakespeare wrote them.

Lysander's joke, that since his would-be father-in-law loved his rival Demetrius so much, the two men should marry each other, sets the evening up for frivolity. When magical night descends on the wood, the chorus enters as giant, fluffy white rabbits, cavorting and carrying on as they are metaphorically supposed to do.

Jonathan Kent's production ladles on the fantasy with diverse theatrical effects. The fairies fly in and out as if it were Heathrow Airport. A horse rises through the floor with Duke Theseus astride it. (The horse is plastic, although Purcell's production for the king probably risked a real one. But even Glyndebourne shies away from that extravagance.) The costumes are traditional for the Athenian toffs, contemporary for the rude mechanicals, comically fantastic for the fairies and at their most extravagant for the "seasons" in Act IV's "Masque of the New Day", the musical highlight. The soprano Claire Debono makes Spring a warmly sensuous affair, while Andrew Foster-Williams gives a chillingly vivid description of Winter in a dark, icy bass.

In contrast to conventional opera, the singers do not have characters but perform as costumed concert artistes. Lucy Crowe appears at the start of almost every movement, her pure soprano illustrating different guises. She manages to top everyone by rendering "Thrice Happy Lovers" suspended from the ceiling, although she sounded a little subdued on the opening night, as if she hadn't yet learned to trust her harness. The most affecting aria was Carolyn Sampson singing "The Plaint".

She mourns a lover with touching sincerity over the weeping, no-vibrato strings. It is the one moment of true pathos in an evening rich in cunning, comic, sentimental and magical devices. The eight fairies are gossamer-light as they dance to Purcell's joyfully rhythmic score. The choreographer, Kim Brandstrup, invents moves that are both contemporary and plausibly Baroque. Purcell's word-painting and sense of humour shine out in the Act III masque, a comic dialogue between the rustic lovers Coridon and Mopsa (the tenor Robert Burt in grotesque drag).

William Christie, conducting, switches on the electricity when required, though there are long periods without music. The orchestra makes a brittle, biting, urgent sound in the overture and one anticipates a fast-paced evening. The scenes do indeed move quickly but ultimately the diffuse aim of the entertainment - song, dance, or play? - allows nothing to cut very deep. One comes away with the feeling of having been royally titillated
on three levels by a sumptuous array of talents and a number of striking visual theatrical effects. Profusion and superficiality substitute for depth.

Until 8 August