Another week, another opera… and this time I was sailing into unchartered waters. Wednesday night’s performance of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the London Coliseum was an completely new experience for me. Having never seen – nay, perhaps even heard – a Britten opera from start to finish, I had no idea what to expect. It wasn’t going in completely cold, having been acquainted fairly well with his War Requiem, but in operatic terms (and given what I’d seen recently by ENO), I knew I would need my thinking cap on.
Good job! Pen in hand, and pre-performance talk mentally absorbed, I was ready…
It would be fair to say that the reviews from the première of this production were wide and varied. It was even mentioned in the pre-performance conversation that at the two previous performances there had been some persistent booing from members of the audience. I absolutely loved how conductor Leo Hussain bounced back from that question – he said something along the lines of “It is nigh-on impossible to please everybody that comes to see a performance, and to that end, we shouldn’t even try. Surely the mark of great art is something that provokes so strong a reaction.” I couldn’t agree more – and I’d like to point out that I was definitely not in the booing-camp…. I thought it was fantastic! Really thought-provoking, laugh-out-loud funny, devastatingly tragic and an all-round brilliant performance! And here’s why…
In Christopher Alden’s production, instead of a fairytale woodland somewhere outside of Athens, the action takes place in a 1960’s boys school. And it soon becomes apparent whose “dream” we are in fact in – a wandering, suited and booted man – who becomes the casual observer of the events occurring onstage.
The staging is wonderfully simple – a huge school yard, surrounded by a large grey school building. Our ever-present tacit stage-wanderer is evidently revisiting his school days. His companion is the young Puck, perhaps his schoolboy-self from many years ago. Oberon is the school master, and Tytania, the music mistress. Our four young hapless lovers are schoolchildren (although the staging did little to explain why Hermia and Helena were attending a boys school – perhaps they were at a sister school?!) Demetrius, the fit, rugby-playing cool kid is juxtaposed with Lysander’s passion for books. All looks good… here’s where Shakespeare lessons at school kick in!
Iestyn Davies as the fairy king Oberon was just sensational. For the première he had apparently been suffering with bad vocal health (and ended up miming whilst a replacement sang his part)… but for this performance there was absolutely no trace of that whatsoever! His voice is incredible. I think that Oberon’s vocal line sits quite low for a counter-tenor and yet Davies sang it powerfully and confidently. His Oberon commanded instant respect from the boys and like Puck, we too were sucked into his game. A marvellous performance!
I was especially impressed with Oberon’s aria “Welcome, wanderer!”. I was treated to two versions of it as in the pre-performance talk, Davies’ understudy, Iestyn Morris, also sang it very well. Just for safekeeping, I’ve included a recording of it (from another production) at the bottom… it’s worth a listen! It also made me smile somewhat when Leo Hussain mentioned that when thinking of Britten’s Fairy King, Oberon, you perhaps think more “fairy” than “king”…!
Anna Christy as Tytania was very cold and matron-like. Her impressive coloratura and control definitely gave her character an edge. You longed to see her lose herself – yet, despite losing several items of clothing during her ‘episode’ with Bottom, her Tytania never really broke free from the ‘school rules’. This worked, though, and her admission “Oh, how I love thee” to Bottom was beautiful.
Our four Athenian lovers were perfectly matched and brilliantly cast. From Hermia and Lysander’s “I swear to thee” duet, to (eventually) Demetrius’ “O Helena, goddess, nymph, perfect, divine!”, we were treated to naïve flirtation, through sexual frustration and on to heart-pounding amour.
Helena (sung beautifully by Kate Valentine) really resonated with me – though not quite so far as her “Alas, I am as ugly as a bear” lament! Demetrius, too, sung ardently by the baritone Benedict Nelson, really struck a chord. He brought a maturity to the dithering Hermia-then-Helena-chasing school sports stud and managed an impressive number of kick-ups, when he wasn’t wowing us with his vocal prowess. Allan Clayton as Lysander was evidently a hit with the audience, and mezzo-soprano Tamara Gura as Hermia wowed me with her impressive control towards the lower end of her range – but I was definitely on the Helena-Demetrius end of the bandwagon!
Nevertheless, the four of them were wonderful in Act 3’s quartet. Staging wise, it looked like they were playing a game of human Pac-Man, but it was wonderful towards the end of the quartet when all four of them approached the audience together. Well done all!
Oh, but of course, it has to go awry! One feels ever so sorry for young Puck – doing everything to keep in his master’s favour, but losing Oberon’s affections to the small changeling boy. He mistakenly gives the wrong Athenian the love potion, cunningly disguised in cigarette form – annoying Oberon further – and is forever jumping through hoops to seek his master’s approval, receiving a caning along the way. Meanwhile, our fairy choir – the schoolboys – are running amok. [The boys, from Trinity School Croydon, were very well disciplined and dodged Britten’s tricky rhythms with ease.] Whilst the sleepy Athenian lovers are taking refuge in the school, Puck sets the building alight – he plays with matches frequently throughout the performance. Nice pyrotechnics, ENO…!
And of course, we have the so-called ‘mechanicals’ or ‘rustics’ – Peter Quince and his merry band of brothers. Whenever I’ve seen the Shakespeare play on stage, this part never fails to amuse – and it didn’t disappoint. Their final ‘performance’ to the Duke and Duchess was very comical – laid thick with innuendo and cringeworthy acting. It helped to lighten the mood somewhat. Willard White as Bottom was energetic and frightfully entertaining. Disguising a powerful voice beneath Bottom’s “ee-aw”-ing was the least of his talents. He portrayed a fantastic Pyramus (the dying moment alone caused the auditorium to erupt several times into laughter), and his ‘moment’ with Tytania was acted very well. The rest of the ‘rustics’ weren’t quite as spectacular, save for the delightful Jonathan Veira as Peter Quince.
However, the joviality can’t last forever, and so at the end Puck returns to bring the ‘show’ to a close. Puck’s constant dream-companion turns out to be none other than Duke Theseus, who is evidently wrestling with some haunting dreams hearkening back to his schooldays, just before his wedding. In Act 3, we see Hippolyta meet him slumped against the wall – exactly the same place in which he had started in Act 1. Praise should be given to both the bass-baritone Paul Whelan as Theseus and the young actor Jamie Manson as Puck. They were on stage the entire time and managed to act as casual observers yet still interact with all of the characters on stage. For Manton, who had the only spoken role in the opera, it must have been exceptionally challenging and he was fantastic. At the end, slumped up against the wall, he cried for ages (very convincingly) and received no comfort from his alter-ego Theseus. You just wanted to give him a hug! The opera draws to a close as Theseus at last releases himself from Oberon’s control and we are left with Puck’s closing words:
“If we shadows have offended,
think but this,
and all is mended,
that you have but slumber’d here
while these visions did appear…”
Well, it was a big thumbs up from me! I really enjoyed it. It set my mind whirring and injected some new levels of thought into my knowledge of Shakespeare. Am I a Britten covert? Maybe… I certainly very much enjoyed learning about his different ‘soundscapes’ at the pre-performance talk.
Did any of you get to see the production? Or have you got any advice on how to approach Britten’s other operas? I would love to hear about your experiences.
Away with the fairies,
P.S. Here is a clip of one of my favourite arias from the opera. Sadly it’s from a different production, but enjoyable nonetheless…!
Oberon (David Daniels) singing to Puck from Act 1 – “Welcome, wanderer!”.