The Fairy Queen kicks off BAM's Opera Festival

“It’s like opera on acid,” I overheard a woman say at intermission. She was probably talking about the stage-full of humping bunny rabbits – that’s actors dressed in full-body Easter bunny costumes happily humping away about two hours into Henry Purcell’s “The Fairy Queen.” There’s lots of classic opera staging too, like the scene in the photo above with set pieces that descend and separate to expose a courtly, bewigged rider atop his golden-winged horse. That’s part of the thrill of this particular production: it exists in no time. Actors are dressed in costumes that reference parliamentary England or the midcentury American housewife but most costumes defy reference to any time at all.

“The Fairy Queen” is a semi-opera, a combination of song, dance and theatre, the precursor of the 20th century American musical. Written in 1692 as a very free adaptation of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Nights Dream,” it was originally criticized as offering no intellectual or cultural interest to audiences. Even William Christie, the conductor (and an incredibly decorated one too – Chanel even created a sword for him to mark his entry into the Academie des Beaux-Arts, the highest French cultural honor) of Les Arts Florissants, noted “it’s pretty rude.” He went to on to explain that “there can only be one Shakespeare. The original, which I think is exquisite, has its own musicality. I wouldn’t want to hear it set to music. This is Henry Purcell. It’s a crude way of resaying Shakespeare, but it has its own vigor.”

Bottom and crew discuss their performance of “Pyramus and Thisbe”

Vigor may be putting it lightly. The production is an outright attack on the senses. Visually brilliant and lush with over the top costumes and set design set to music that is as powerful as it is often funny, “The Fairy Queen” is, to used a tired phrase, opera like you’ve never seen it before. Even if you’ve never read Shakespeare’s original text, what Purcell seems to have taken away from his reading of it is that “one charming night can last a thousand days.” That one charming night is interpreted onstage in a myriad of ways – as a literal romp in the hay between a farm boy and very buxom farm girl, by a dozen or so rabbits in heat or by Adam, who sings jauntily in his fig leaves beside his lady Eve, who casually passes around an apple.

Performed with original instruments by musicians obviously in love with the music they’re playing and led by a conductor who, he said, would take Purcell’s music and Purcell’s music alone to a desert island if he had to make that choice, “The Fairy Queen” is an absolute joy to listen to, and with a script that had the audience laughing out loud, it might just be the most fun you’ll have all week.

“The Fairy Queen” is part of BAM’s ongoing Opera Festival. Performances run until March 27, 2010. Photos by Stephanie Berger.