The assumption that it’s an operatic version of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is misleading.
First of all, fans of the play will catch the mention of Oberon, and the opening song about lovers running away from town, and the fairy chorus, But after that, all Shakespearean references are immediately bumped offstage by Night, Mystery, Secrecy, Sleep, Corydon, Mopsa, Phoebus, the four seasons, Juno, and A Chinese Man and Woman who, in the style of a vaudeville revue, each sing a show-stopping character song.
And the songs alone are what makes Fairy Queen worthwhile. Purcell provided each of these unreal characters with songs worth hearing (e.g. “See, even Night herself is here”).
And (for the second misleading thing), for listeners who equate opera with Verdi or Wagner, the distinctive sound of Purcell can be a shock: it’s an entirely different branch of music theater. There are show-off vocal acrobatics, but instead of a grand orchestra, Purcell’s forces are like a lounge act band. It’s not just the English language that links them to show tunes.
Moreover, like a superior lounge act, Purcell never settles into one groove. He passes from high to low, grand to common, alternating from wholehearted get-down dances to thrilling grand anthems, from devastating laments to cheeky comic songs.
As a consequence, the songs live as independent concert pieces, and their original context is forgotten, the same way songs of Irving Berlin and Gershwin outlive the shows they were originally embedded in. But inevitably, there’s a desire to see and hear the songs a real show. And so people create new theatrical productions incorporating the old songs (My One and Only, etc.)
Hence last Sunday with Long Beach Opera, home of the unexpected. Andreas Mitisek deserves a lot of credit for getting Culture Clash to adapt Fairy Queen.
It's not really a stretch. The trio is especially good at finding the key for material whose comic secret has been mislaid. Their version of Peace by Aristophanes was the best Getty Villa performance ever: a hurricane of slapstick, topical allusions, painful puns, outrageous ethnic and racial stereotypes and fine-grain satire. I staggered out of the performances wounded from laughing.
And so, too, this production was full of brilliant and apt inventions. First of all, setting the scene in Las Vegas. And then, taking a cue from Shakespeare, Culture Clash created three couples who fall under the influence and lose their way. They created characters and context. I don’t know if Purcell’s stately periods really worked as music for a rave, but it felt just. Culture Clash’s greatest triumph came after the party, after the love drug fades, and everyone wakes up with a hangover to sing “If Love's a Sweet Passion, why does it torment?” It was a better dramatic use of the song than in the original.
But I walked out of Fairy Queen unwounded. The only hurricane was the meteorological one happening outside the theater.
I suspect that the music was too much for them. One stately rave scene can be a goof, but almost three hours of Purcell imposes its own sensibility. Purcell is not stuffy and he loves fun and frivolity, but his pace is never frantic. And Purcell's vocal music makes extraordinary demands. It's hard to clown while having to draw all that filigree. Even so, Marc Molomot as Puck, the owner of Club Fairy Queen, was game, as was Alexandra Martinez-Turano—who first appeared as a pole dancer during one of the instrumental interludes.
Tellingly, the moment just before the music started might have been the funniest of the show. Zacharias Neidzwiecki (the head-turning Bartender and gold-trunked go-go boy) comes out while Musica Angelica is tuning up. You know how those period instruments sound. He glares at them: then plops on a sofa and covers his ears with pillows.