Anyone in New York’s five boroughs (or beyond) who has an interest in theater, classical music, dance or just dazzling spectacle should do whatever they can to experience one of the remaining two performances of Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this week. Quite simply, Jonathan Kent’s production (in collaboration with conductor William Christie and his baroque music troupe Les Arts Florissants) is to most opera or theater productions seen in this country what Avatar is to contemporary Hollywood films.
The easiest comparison is length (This Fairy Queen let out more than four hours after it started) but real analogy is in the inventive (and re-inventive) use of drama, light, and music to tell a story. Like Cameron’s Avatar, Kent and Christie’s Fairy Queen has little that is original. The text is cribbed from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the music a hodge-podge of numbers, since the score was considered lost for hundreds of years. The magic comes, in this production, in the complete faith in the powers of stage sight and sound.
Christie and his band are pioneers of the period music movement and they make Purcell’s music feel as if it were being improvised on the spot. The tempi are fluid, the balances never encroaching on (or overwhelming) the action on stage. Like the best cinematography, for much of the piece— except in moments where beauty is called for by narrative—you forget that they are there (an odd compliment for a famous orchestra, but it is a sincere one).
Likewise Kent believes in the old-fashioned combination make-believe and spectacle. There are countless costume changes, things emerging from beneath the stage, plus people and objects descending from the heavens (not to mention plenty of use of the aisles). All of it is played for fun, like a street entertainer daring his audience to think he can’t top the last trick. Many directors aim for this sort of retro, lo-fi fun, but Kent has the dedication (and, it must be said, the budget) to keep this shtick from getting old. When the wigs get old, he brings out wings, when you forget about the wings, here comes the bunny costumes—think he can’t top the bunny costumes? Here’s a gondola oared by a giant fish. We’re not even to the second act yet.
The most amazing feat is that Kent and Christie are basically putting on both a full opera and a full performance of Shakespeare at the same time. As hard as it is to pull off a successful production of one of those things, it seems impossible to do both—which is why full productions of The Fairy Queen are so rare. Yet here at BAM the solo singers are first rate, the acting is broad but lively (and often, especially in the case of Bottom, Quince and their hopeless bunch, hilarious) and the dance choreography (courtesy of Kim Brandstrup) graceful and well integrated into the action.
No doubt Kent’s production will not appeal to everyone. It’s busy, raunchy, full of cheap gags, and it mashes every style of costume and décor into one dizzy-ing blur of motion. Like Cameron, Kent seems hell-bent on providing something for everyone. Often in opera or theater, this “tarting up” of classic works can feel cheap, but in this case patchwork construction of The Fairy Queen (called a “semi-opera in five acts” with an “anonymous libretto from A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream”) welcomes this come-one, come-all style. Purcell’s vision was spectacle. He grafted songs (that don’t speak of the action) on Shakespeare’s play—it’s less a semi-opera, and more a meta-opera.
Adam and Eve don’t figure in the last Act of Midsummer, but when Purcell’s aria of “Thus, the Gloomy World” rolls around and we see a man and a woman wearing only fig leaves, Kent makes them relevant. They pantomime (while singing) the story of the end of paradise to the two young married couples. Adam and Eve transform into aimless hipsters as Purcell’s music describes divine power and sunlight. It may sound odd, but this 6-minute vignette has more dramatic arc and clarity than many full-length plays or operas currently running.
What Cameron did with Avatar was use new technology to make a patchwork of familiar themes and plots seem new and wondrous. It’s not exactly art (and much of the time it is hokey) but like this Fairy Queen, it is the work of countless professionals working the highest level, carefully orchestrated to dazzle people. Instead of 3-D glasses and computer graphics, what Kent and Christie dazzle us with is old fashioned special effects: an orchestra, moving scenery and talented humans. Their belief in ability of a string section to make your heart ache or a man in a shiny costume descending from the rafters to make people go “oooh” is no different than Cameron’s trust in technology.
In 1692, The Fairy Queen seen at Dorset Garden Theater in London was the most novel use of sound and light to tell an epic story; 300+ years later, the meshing of music and drama has evolved in sophisticated ways far beyond what Purcell could have dreamed. But even as Handel, Mozart, Wagner and, yes, Philip Glass have stretched what music and drama can convey together, the instincts of these composers are no different than Purcell’s. What Kent and Christie achieve with this epic, rollicking production of The Fairy Queen is simple: a sustained sense of wonder.