It was nasty in Long Beach on Sunday. Record rainfall turned parts of the 710 into an underwater expedition for many on their way to that afternoon’s Long Beach Opera season-opening performance of Henry Purcell’s “The Fairy Queen.” An announcement at intermission at the Beverly O’Neill Theater warned that the parking lot’s lower level had become “well, a canal.”
It was meant to be nasty inside as well. The O’Neill (formerly the Center Theater) had been turned into Club Fairy Queen in “sultry Las Vegas,” and on offer was “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” package. Puck, ostentatious gold chain around his fleshy neck, checked out the fishnet stockinged legs of a new pole dancer at his club. The drunken poet Shakes was all shook up.
Couples arrived. Regal Tanya and bling-laden Ron meant to mend a rocky marriage. Flashy Lysander and flashy Herman came to cavort flashily on their honeymoon. Uptight Helena and anxious Demetrius came, no doubt hopelessly, to commit.
What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, and who cares? Such caricatures of Shakespearean characters are long the trivial staples of so-called Eurotrash opera productions.
But for all its silly sex and stale double-entendres, this revelatory Vegas-trash “Fairy Queen” has no business staying in Vegas. In it, the plunge into inner lives proves as startling as driving into a deep freeway lake that wasn’t there a minute ago.
Nor, for that matter, is there any real necessity for what happens in Purcell’s theater music to stay in Purcell’s theater pieces.
In “The Fairy Queen,” Purcell applied dances, tender arias and comic routines to a rewrite of Shakespeare’s “Dream.” The fairy kingdom gets all the music, set pieces such as a masque in a Chinese garden or an interlude of wooing peasants.
So if Purcell could do this to Shakespeare to suit the late 17th century British stage, Long Beach Opera should have just as much right deconstructing Purcell for the titillation of early 21st century audiences.
This adaptation teams up Andreas Mitisek, LBO’s artistic and general director, with the San Francisco theater troupe Culture Clash. Mitisek takes responsibility for the musical arrangement, stage direction and set. Culture Clash supplied Vegas-specific dialogue. In further culture clashing, Martin Haselböck conducts from the harpsichord his period instrument ensemble, Musica Angelica, while ample-voiced modern-day singers amuse themselves with their sex-obsessed Vegas antics. Thanks to a terrific cast and terrific music, it somehow all works.
Mitisek’s invention is not so much to take what he wants from Purcell’s score where and when he wants it, which of course he does do, but to let the nature of Purcell’s music lead him into new theatrical solutions. There are more gags than anyone needs, the most obvious being in recontextualizing the text. Gay meant one thing then, something else now.
But the sentiments stand. Love’s sweet torment is ever love’s sweet torment. And isn’t it obvious that we, today, no less demand, as an alto sings, “A thousand, thousand ways … to entertain the hours”? Purcell’s knack is to make everything his music touches timely.
In this reinvention of Shakespeare, Ron (short for Oberon) succumbs to the pole dancer and is found out by Tanya (Titania), who leaves him. Puck produces a tonic, in the form of an alcoholic punch, intended to make Tanya fall back in love with Ron, but she goes for Puck instead. Shakes unwittingly freely dispenses more punch to clubsters, and all hell breaks lose. Lysander finds his inner straight guy and falls for Helena, who learns she has a wild side. Turned on by Herman. Demetrius for the first time seems comfortable in his skin. Shakes, like Tanya, also goes after Puck.
Everything eventually goes back to normal, with the help of a drone delivery from Amazon, but not really. The characters have learned too much.
It is Puck who undergoes the most touching transformation. Moreover, the example of a brilliantly Falstaffian performance by French tenor Marc Molomot seems to lift the level of everyone around him.
That everyone includes Kimberly E. Jones as the stunning Tanya; Cedric Berry, a potent Ron; Roberto Perlas Gómez, an unsettling Shakes; Ryan Belongie, a sparkling Lysander; Scott Brunscheen, a supple Demetrius; Alexandra Martinez-Turano, a plenty sexy pole dancer and her alter-ego Helena; and Darryl Taylor, a scene-stealing Herman. Four ensemble singers keep the club hopping.
Musica Angelica’s dim-sounding period instruments felt a little far away behind the stage, but the playing was eloquent (and the valveless trumpets triumphant). Southern California’s most important early music ensemble hasn’t had much presence on the local scene lately, and the quality of this performance suggests there can’t be any good reason for that.
Then again, Long Beach Opera has been hit and miss lately, and this hit suggests there is no reason for misses when it is back rethinking music and theater in ways no one else has quite thought before, and for the betterment of both.
‘The Fairy Queen’
Where: Beverly O’Neill Theater, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach
When: 2:30 and 8 p.m Saturday
Information: (562) 470-7464 or longbeachopera.org
Running time: 3 hours and 5 minutes