Paris, Opéra Comique, 24 January 2010- Special report
Your far-flung Intelligencer correspondents are forever on the alert for interesting musical events with some Boston tie-in, no matter how seemingly remote. This delicious production of the Purcell score with (most) of the Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream included will recall to veteran Bostonians a not-entirely-dissimilar production by the American Repertory Theater and a skilled crew of our own musical baroqueniks, back in the early 1980’s. A few years later, in 1989, the present writer also witnessed a Purcell-Shakespeare show at the Aix-en-Provence music festival, under the musical direction of William Christie. This “Fairy Queen,” put on by Les Arts Florissants, with Christie at the helm on most nights, is the third such production in personal memory, and the best and most fun. Furthermore, it’s coming to the States in a few weeks, via the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and Trobador urges his readers to take a trip to New York to take it all in.
This kind of baroque opera-spectacle, to be entirely successful and satisfying, needs to be musical, intelligent, and sumptuous. In Boston, and in the States in general, we have musicality and intelligence galore, but we come up short on the sumptuous side. The money just isn’t there. (Concerning the chronic underfunding of the arts in Boston……well, don’t get Trobador started on this sensitive subject.) This coproduction among the Paris Opéra Comique, the Glyndebourne Festival, the Theátre de Caen, and BAM, has it all, as the generous state subsidies in Europe, France in particular, make possible the requisitely lavish scale such spectacle requires.
The Opéra Comique show presents, if memory serves correctly, the entire Purcell score and the major part of the Shakespeare play, cumulating all and all, with an intermission, a runtime of just under four hours. The time passes easily, and the capacity French crowd at the Salle Favart sat through a couple of hours of music-less, English language text with apparent pleasure (there were, so the story goes, supertitles, invisible from your correspondent’s less-than-ideal seat in a loge.)
To be honest, the Purcell score, however fabulous it may be, is incidental music to a play; no matter how fine the musical interpretation, a less-than-excellent theater experience will guarantee a measure of disappointment, as your veteran correspondent recalls was the case during the ART run all those years back. In this current production, the intrigue and the text are trimmed a little, but most of the famous bits are still there (an exception being Puck’s wonderful closing lines, and they were missed—but Purcell and his 1692 collaborators evidently wished otherwise). For continuity’s sake, there are also a few lines interpolated here and there, evidently from that later rewrite of Shakespeare by an anonymous hand. The British actors are mainly first-rate, and they can handle Shakespeare’s language convincingly—something that comes a little harder to many American actors, even good pros like those at the ART back then. Only the Oberon here, oddly rigid and monochromatic, was somewhat disappointing. Sally Dexter was an electric Titania, and Desmond Barrit, who played Bottom (and sang the Drunken Poet as well) drew the loudest applause of anyone, musician or actor, at the final curtain call.
The music was mostly just fine, with music director Jonathan Cohen’s brisk and expeditious tempi moving everything along well in the best traditions of good show business. A couple of his tempi struck this writer as almost too fast, but a couple of cast members whispered to me that they preferred the quick pacing to William Christie’s supposedly more leisurely measure. While Les Arts Flo retains many veteran players from the 70’s and 80’s in the pit, the cast onstage is young and even, at moments, a bit green. The countertenor solo parts were taken, haute-contre style, by high tenors, to uneven effect. On the other hand, bass Andrew Foster-Williams took on the variously challenging roles of Cordidon, Winter, Hymen, and Sleep with great aplomb, and was an audience favorite. Diminutive soprano Emmanuelle de Negri sang “The Plaint” as though her life depended on it and, aided by intelligent staging, made that number one of the rare moments in the show that spoke directly to the heart (one other was a danced evocation of sleep and its erotic fantasms, choreographed by Kim Brandstrup). The orchestra, of course, is one of the best baroque bands in the business, and if blend was sometimes hard to achieve in the overly dry acoustic of the Salle Favart, there was plenty of drive and flair in the playing.
The staging by Jonathan Kent, is, shall we say, sex-positive. And constantly inventive, drawing on a heterogeneous mix of stylistic approaches from “authentic” 17th-century decor and costuming to Gustave Doré (the black winged fairies) to Busby-Berkeley-style Art Deco and beyond. The choreography is supple and seductive. For much of the show the chorus and dancers, in sleek basic black outfits, resemble fashionable clients of a Paris disco (only with wings). Here’s a more relaxed approach to the re-creation of a classic work: neither fastidiously historical nor polemically counter-historical. As T.S. Eliot said in another context (this quote from memory): “There is no method. The only method is to be very intelligent.” The riotous pre-intermission finale is a brilliant success, as a stageful of white Easter Bunnies engages in a joyful, collective bonk,… guiltless and somehow innocent for all that, and prefiguring the dressed-all-in-white double marriage of the finale. I only wish Titania had figured more prominently at the very end. For, if the title is to be believed, the show is about her….