What a Drag - It's Just Not Purcell

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WHEN Purcell's Fairy Queen opened at the Dorset Garden Theatre in 1692, the production cost pounds 3,000: 100 times the annual wages of a London labourer and enough to keep the 17th-century equivalent of Terry Dicks in soundbites for a month. More money for the toffs! But as Dicks would know if he wasn't so committed to the arrogant assumption that opera is beyond the enjoyment of ordinary people, money spent on such things isn't money for the toffs at all. Theatres like Dorset Garden only survived because they had a broad appeal across all classes, and the spectacle of Fairy Queen was geared to nothing less. The text demands platoons of gods and goddesses, nymphs, shepherds, dancing monkeys, Chinamen, a dragon bridge, an oriental garden, fountains . . . and if I say the piece is based on A Midsummer Night's Dream, you'll appreciate that the derivation is loose. Effectively it's a Lloyd Webber crowd-puller with better music; and it accommodates the ambivalence between high and low art which is so endearing a feature of Purcell's creativity.

The best defence I can offer for David Pountney's new production of Fairy Queen at ENO is that it tries to recreate that ambivalence in 20th-century terms: as a Rocky Horror package of bizarre, outrageous, high-camp, dirt- cheap jokes - and frankly, if they made me laugh I wouldn't mind so much. But they don't. The whole thing resonates with emptiness. And it's the emptier for the fundamental approach ENO has taken to the problem of how you stage Purcellian music drama.

Pieces like Fairy Queen are half-speech, half-music. The speech contains the story, but is usually long- winded and dull. The music is a joy but pure embellishment: most often gathered into self-contained and plotless masques with no more than a marginal, reflective relevance to anything. Accordingly, wise directors trim the speech down to token statements or to a one-man narration, as was the case with the superb King Arthur in this year's Proms.

But Pountney cuts it entirely; and as that leaves nothing but a pointless string of masques, he invents a new storyline - still based on Shakespeare but, er, even more loosely. At its heart is a Michael Jackson lookalike (Oberon, aka Thomas Randle) very taken with the boy attendant of an Elizabeth Taylor lookalike (Titania, aka Yvonne Kenny). The oriental garden has become the back-yard of Chairman Mao; the water-feature a gag about washing machines; and there's a lot of camping around in drag - except, perversely, where Purcell actually calls for it, in the rustic love duet between Mopsa and Coridon. Scored for a countertenor in a frock, Mopsa has been given back his/her trousers, turning the duet into a gay romp. It doesn't work.

Nor does the musicology behind the staging. Purcell's five masques in five acts have been adapted to nine in three. Titania's questionably over- the-top "Plaint" (a probable interpolation by Daniel Purcell that the score can do without) has been retained. And the compromise of mixing modern and period instruments in the pit blurs the textural sharpness of the writing. In fact it's a nonsense having a small band like this in the pit at all. They need to be closer to the singers to establish any real sense of relationship and balance; and although Nicholas Kok conducts incisively and well, you get no idea of the richly variegated spectacle that sound, as well as sight, should supply.

In short, you get no idea of the Fairy Queen at all. It has become something else: beautifully sung by Yvonne Kenny, divertingly choreographed by Quinny Sacks, and sometimes strikingly designed by Robert Israel, but just not Purcell.

Composers who write opera for television are faced with a dilemma. Either they write something that wholeheartedly exploits the medium and has no afterlife on stage, or they write something that looks to its future, ignores the specific resources of the small screen, and isn't really "TV" opera at all. …