Purcell did not set out to make The Fairy Queen a dramatically integrated work, composing instead transitional musical numbers and songs (for different voice types rather than specific characters) loosely connected to a 1692 adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. At the Theater an der Wien, director Mariame Clément and novelist Lucy Wadham have crafted innovative material that brings the old-fashioned lyrics to life in a coherent and contemporary dramatic setting. Traces of Shakespeare's world of magic, shifting love interests, and self-conscious theatre-making guide the contours of this fresh adaptation. As we follow six easily recognizable character types through the conceit of a behind-the-scenes look at the opera rehearsal process, an array of production techniques helps to deepen the characters, endowing the musical dimension with more emotion than one might expect. With Christophe Rousset leading Les Talens Lyrique as willing and sensitive accomplices, Purcell's music becomes, somewhat surprisingly, vital to the story.

Florian Köfler, Kurt Streit and Anne-Marie Sullivan © Monika Rittershaus
Florian Köfler, Kurt Streit and Anne-Marie Sullivan
© Monika Rittershaus

The gambit only works well if the audience can easily follow the new plot. Clément and Wadham address this challenge by starting the stage action with an opening night cast party, during which the company head introduces and thanks each main character in turn. The assistant director is missing, and the dramaturg (director's research assistant) is acknowledged only as an afterthought, hinting at the pecking order and inter-personal dynamics that become more clearly etched in the ensuing flashback. As the stage opens up to show a vast rehearsal space (designs by Julia Hansen), Clément excels in depicting the multi-faceted and peculiarly intimate world of theatre-making. Microcosms of typically invisible personnel are portrayed in individualistic detail. The Arnold Schoenberg Choir, a handful of extras, and Carolina Lippo in the small sung role of the prop handler make this realm convincing on every level. The uncooperative standout in this picture is a temperamental diva, whose unprofessional behavior lead to her dismissal, and Anna's chance to spring from her position as chorister into a primary role.

Anna Prohaska © Monika Rittershaus
Anna Prohaska
© Monika Rittershaus

Anna is sung by Anna Prohaska (all of the principal singers retain their real first names), and "Let us leave this town" expresses her plan to escape with her for-the-moment lover, assistant director Florian (Köfler). The production's designer, Florian (Boesch), then presents himself as an unwieldy creative force, lumbering into view for his superbly performed song as a drunken poet. The director, Kurt (Streit), gets the rehearsal rolling with "Come all ye Songsters." Although his confidence is part show (and he later spirals into a creative crisis), Streit's lyricism and well-controlled decorative lines are appreciated throughout.

Instrumental interludes tell a more personal story, with inner thoughts conveying the frustrations and insecurities of the characters rendered as projected text. Theatre makers might connect these moments to stretches in rehearsals when many people wait in silence, on call but also in their own mental space, as certain individuals execute their specific tasks. This remains a notably static handling of music that sometimes veers in lively directions, pregnant with physical gestures.

<i>The Fairy Queen</i> © Monika Rittershaus
The Fairy Queen
© Monika Rittershaus

Rousset opted for a more reflective interpretation in general, an approach that worked best for the series of sleep-related songs that close the second act, treated as a 20-minute rehearsal break in the rehearsal, and in the final act. In both passages, Prohaska shone. In Act 2 she cast an ethereal lyrical spell on Kurt, handled in freeze-frame to suggest a figment of his imagination. The actor Rupert (Charlesworth), originally partnered with dramaturg Marie-Claude (Chappuis), turns his attentions and golden-hued tenor toward another male actor as he sings of his desired charming night – a turn followed up by his exuberant performance of "Maids never kiss no men" in drag. The designer, Florian, fully reveals his attractive bass-baritone in closing the second act, and becomes an increasingly liberating and magical force as the evening unfolds.

Anna Prohaska, Florian Köfler and Florian Boesch © Monika Rittershaus
Anna Prohaska, Florian Köfler and Florian Boesch
© Monika Rittershaus

Cast and crew draw closer, but anxieties also grow. The performance in preparation is not the end point, however, and when we reach the opening night cast party once more, the round of thanks is enacted as pantomime. Clément then presses forth to probe what happens after the insular rehearsal process ends and reality begins to intrude. Ulrik Gad's lighting proved key here (and elsewhere), sculpting Anna's outer and inner worlds as she shifted back and forth from appearing a gracious star, happy to be included in selfie mementos, to a withdrawn and weepy figure. The neglected and lonely Marie-Claude meanwhile drowns her sorrows to excess, undercutting her professions of happiness to such an embarrassing state that the party crowd disperses. When the two women band together, Marie-Claude regains her rich vocal self-composure and the only entrancing set of the evening emerges – a gauzy fantasy-forest of the designer's making – enabling glimpses, however fleeting, of freedom for all.