The Fairy Queen

The BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall

A regular visitor to the BBC Proms for some years now, Glyndebourne Opera has had some great successes transferring product from its Sussex base. Last year’s Coronation of Poppaea and, before that, Guilio Cesare were big hits, despite the lack of sets, but The Fairy Queen does not fare as well.

We don’t know nowadays how these works were done in Purcell’s time or how they should be done now. Mark Morris’ King Arthur a few years ago was a complete jumble, as was David Pountney’s earlier Fairy Queen for ENO, and the same could be said of Glyndebourne’s presentation, at least in the version we saw at the Royal Albert Hall.

Take the spectacle out of Purcell’s semi-opera and the mix of play (a potted version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and music appears even more disjointed. It doesn’t help that Jonathan Kent’s production of the play part (realised for the Proms by Francesca Gilpin) is very conventionally presented and all the more tedious for it.

The skilled team of actors are to be applauded for communicating across the vast expanses of the hall but the comedy is of the strictly crowd-pleasing kind, with a battalion of bonking bunnies for the Dance of the Haymakers, which closed the first half, crowning an approach that was obvious in the extreme.

Musically, it comes off a good deal better. William Christie conducted the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in a wonderfully refined performance of a score presented for the first time since the early 18th Century at the pitch the composer intended.

A cast of some of our finest younger singers – Carolyn Sampson, Lucy Crowe, Ed Lyon, Andrew Foster-Williams and Clare Debono – was outstanding. Crowe glowed at each appearance and Sampson’s singing of “Ye gentle spirits of the air appear” and “O let me forever weep” (comparable with Dido’s Lament) was worth sitting through the considerably less elegant aspects of the performance for. This radiant soprano has never sounded better.

This was a very long evening, for which bowdlerised Shakespeare could have happily been left in Sussex along with the sets and special effects. For once, what usually passes for “semi-staging” – a line-up of singers with scores – would have been preferable.

– Simon Thomas