Opera + Classical Music Reviews

The Fairy Queen @ Coliseum, London

12, 15, 20, 22, 24, 27 June, 2, 5 July 2002

Coliseum, London

Coliseum, London (Photo: Grant Smith)

I didn’t take an umbrella along to the Coliseum, often a disastrous mistake in view of the current laughable attempt at summer weather offered to inhabitants of London town. I needn’t have worried, however – there could have been a monsoon when I came out and I wouldn’t have noticed. I was so intoxicated by the performance of The Fairy Queen that I floated back to the car, grinning so widely that even the most sinister inhabitants of late-night Bloomsbury gave me a wide berth. It was almost like being back in the golden age of the Jonas-Elder-Pountney triumvirate at ENO, especially coming straight after two other superb productions in Lulu and Così fan Tutte.

Purcell’s “semi-opera” was first performed in 1692, and this production (by David Pountney) was first seen in 1995 and makes a welcome return. In a director’s note in the (excellent) programme, Pountney comments that “the original Fairy Queen consisted of a bowdlerised text of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Purcell’s musical numbers essentially made up masques which came at the ends of the acts of the play. Sometimes the musical numbers bore some relation to the progress of the play, sometimes not.’ Thus we have a scene set in China, and a birthday party divertissement originally for Oberon, now for King Theseus. Titania, Oberon and Puck are all here, but no mechanicals (though there is a splendid ass).

However the story is totally irrelevant, as the sheer exuberance of the production soon makes any desire to follow a plot redundant. There’s just as much dance as opera, and the fact that the original choreographer and her assistant – Quinny Sacks and Elaine Tyler-Hall – are joint directors of the revival may help to explain its vibrancy, and the spot-on timing. Puck in particular is a brilliant characterisation by dancer Nikolas Kafetzakis; Arthur Pita is a very well developed Indian boy (we’re talking toy-boy here – it’s not surprising everyone wants him) who brings grace and poignancy to the role. Other dancers that shine among a uniformly excellent cast are Martha Wildman as Assipattle, one of Oberon’s fairies, looking wonderfully Vivienne Westwood in her punk attire and spiky hair, and Alex Rose and Lee Boggess as Titania’s two butlers, splendidly named Tea / Andtoast.

Costume design by Dunya Ramicova is also a triumph – mostly highly inventive post-punk for the fairies (with plenty of cross-dressing), Oberon sexy in black leather trousers and claret velvet tails, and Titania the only (relatively) conventionally dressed fairy in a gorgeous purple gown. Mortals in the dreary world outside fairyland wear drab grey, other than for the birthday party divertissement when it’s wonderful 50s/60s/70s kitsch. This scene also contains an absolute show-stopper – two counter tenors (Christopher Josey and Ryland Angel) sang the aria Let the Fife and the Clarions in gold lame shirts and shocking pink bell-bottoms, complete with disco arm movements, and had the audience helpless with laughter. A sublimely silly moment.

The singing cast is also excellent, with many taking multiple roles. Tom Randle is a passionate, impulsive Oberon, seething with rage when crossed but always sounding (and looking) good with his secure, warm tenor voice. Joan Rodgers is an elegant and sensual Titania, looking rather like Nicole Kidman in one of her wild-hair roles. Her voice took a little while to settle, but by the time she expressed her grief at her wrecked marriage it was clear and sweet, making this a genuinely moving scene. Mark Richardson sings the curmudgeon Theseus and the demi-God Hymen; Mary Nelson and Carolyn Sampson are delightful as Tanterabogus and Trash, two of Titania’s fairies; Graeme Danby is menacing as Brag, one of Oberon’s less tasteful followers. Among the mortals, Gail Pearson is lovely as Caroline and Jonathan Best as the Drunken Poet almost brings the house down as he falls into the orchestra pit.

One of the triumphs of this production is that a mish-mash of disjointed scenes, with almost instant changes from high farce to pathos, is made to work so perfectly. The sets by Robert Israel are basic: just a few flats that can be moved around by the cast to create different spaces, and strategically dropped drapes. The exception is a jewel-box of a 17th-century house (the size of a very large dolls house) which, when swivelled, shows King Theseus asleep in bed on his birthday morning: a delightful touch.

However the real credit must go to David Pountney, who took the music and sung text from Purcell (fifty-nine separate numbers), created a theatrical storyboard to bring it together as a (more or less) recognisable version of Shakespeare’s play, and had the vision to turn it into something magical. Paul Daniels as ever keeps the pace up from the pit, and the addition of viola da gamba, theorbo, baroque guitar and natural trumpets in the orchestra gives a suitably atmospheric sound.

There were empty seats on the first night – what a tragedy. Don’t miss the most joyous night in town.

buy Tom Randle MP3s or CDs
Spotify Tom Randle on Spotify

More on Tom Randle
The Return of Ulysses @ Young Vic, London
The Beggar’s Opera @ Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House, London
The Fairy Queen @ Coliseum, London