Our first prom of the season last night: the Glyndebourne production of Purcell's Fairy Queen, transplanted for the evening to the rather less intimate surroundings of the Royal Albert Hall.

The Fairy Queen is a strange animal known technically as a "semi-opera" (Purcell wrote several others, most notably King Arthur, Dioclesian and The Indian Queen. It consists of a full acted performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream (although abridged and hacked about somewhat), with slots inserted at various points for orchestral music, song and dance, all of which is related to the play only in a very tenuous fashion. It feels like a 17th century variety show, particularly if you read some of the original stage directions shown in the Proms programme, which make it clear that the original staging was extravagantly over the top, complete with dancing monkeys, Chinese orange trees and various other improbable accoutrements. The resulting package is very, very English, enjoying the fun and lacking the bombast that would have attended its continental equivalents of the time. It's rather a pity that the genre rather ran aground after Purcell, with Handel's more conventional oratorios and operas taking over.

It has to be said that the whole thing was a long evening, pushing four hours, and there was a deeply odd moment just before the interval when one of the original dances (the "Haymaker's dance") was choreographed as a group of dancers in giant fluffy white rabbit suits engaged in three minutes of rampant bunny sex. I'm not sure what the point was, nor, I imagine, did the parents of the youngish children in the row behind, who duly left in the interval.

But apart from the bonking bunnies, seeing a well acted performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream is always fun, even if the Purcell version is missing a few of the good bits. But what makes The Fairy Queen special is the genius of Purcell himself. Like Mozart after him, Purcell had the ability to take a fairly conventional piece of operatic music and simply drop in two or three chords that take your breath away, or a snatch of melody that makes your heart stop, and the piece abounds with these.

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Of course, it helps when the musicianship is of the calibre on display last night. Carolyn Sampson and Lucy Crowe both generated a glorious purity of tone (especially in Sampson's closing "Plaint"), and my high spot of the evening was Andrew Foster-Williams' rich bass-baritone ushering in the night with "Hush no more, be silent all". William Christie started the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment going at a break-neck clip, and somehow managed to keep control of it all without letting the pace slip on the fun bits but staying suitably elegiac on the slower arias.

Purcell was extraordinary. He could write beautiful, memorable melodies, fuse them together into intricate counterpoint in the style of renaissance polyphony, and overlay the whole lot with very secular baroque instrumentation and ornamentation - all of this with seemingly boundless energy and fun. I don't know of anything else that comes close to making the same impact.

David Karlin 22nd July 2009