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20.12.04

Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream

Other Newspaper Article

N.B., Nuit d'été aux portes de l'hiver (La Libre Belgique, November 30)

I noted a few interesting productions of the operas of Benjamin Britten around the world, in my Preview of the Opera Season, 2004–2005. After the Washington National Opera's excellent production of Billy Budd (see the Ionarts reviews), now I have been following the news about A Midsummer Night's Dream (the site is in French or Flemish) at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels, until December 31. The conductor is Ivor Bolton (with Peter Tomek replacing on December 29 and 31), the staging is by Scottish director David McVicar, with sets and costumes by Rae Smith and lighting by Paule Constable. The pictures look terrific.

Martine D. Mergeay's review (Retour de la féerie à la Monnaie, December 10) for La Libre Belgique calls McVicar's staging "unbridled" and Smith's design "sumptuously visual" (my translation):
The stage curtain already sets the tone: a rich stylized lace, in black and white, which we soon realize has been woven by spiders. Charm and seduction, in one sense, somehow malevolent signs in another. It's with one foot in each of the two worlds that the spectator travels through Benjamin Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream, inspired by William Shakespeare's inexhaustible comedy and premiered in Aldeburgh in 1960.

Unlike the works of Purcell and Mendelssohn, which favor the gracious and unreal face of the fairy world, Britten's opera is closer to the original comedy and takes on its contrasting aspects, at once realistic, raw, and poetic, which reveal that passion drives us to the greatest follies, that no oath can be taken seriously, but that love's intuition remains the primary guide of fairies, humans, animals, the forest, the stars, in short, of all nature (of which it is, once and for all, the only "order"). It is with this mixture of cynicism and indulgence that David McVicar confronts Britten's opera. The visual components, designed by Rae Smith, are of an exceptional quality, in the purest tradition of 17th-century fairy tales: tulles, puffy skirts, leaves and flowers, gilding, glory descending from the rafters.
While she praises the staging as "totally convincing," the casting is less glorious, particularly countertenor Michael Chance who "mixes musicality, intonation problems, and lack of power" as Oberon (one of the great modern countertenor roles, along with Prince Go-Go in Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre). (What is it with countertenors these days? They're not only on stage in New York, Paris, San Francisco, and now Brussels, they're even in the Metro stations here in Washington.)

Michèle Friche's review (Le grenier des désirs, December 10) for LeGuide.be calls the production a combination of a "typically English tale" and "the shadow of that fabulous storyteller Tim Burton, writer and director of Sleepy Hollow." Here are a few excerpts of Nicolas Blanmont's interview with David McVicar («Songe» et réalités de McVicar, December 7) for La Libre Belgique:
Is it more difficult to direct an opera with a Shakespeare libretto?

No, why would it be? He's the greatest author of all time. Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream is not like Verdi's Shakespeares, where you must deal with this Italian 19th-century rewriting: with Britten, you have Shakespeare's exact words. I can help the singers reflect on the exact meaning of the text. It's good to stay close to the text, especially for stupid singers! I hate having to spoon-feed them. That's why I was so happy to work here with children: it gave me someone intelligent to speak to.

You have said many times that the director's job is to tell stories...

What use are we if not to tell stories? To tell you the truth, I don't understand what the fuck Robert Wilson is still doing in the theater! Sorry but with him, no one is acting, no story is being told: I might as well be in a museum looking at an exhibit with the Aida soundtrack in the background! He has done nothing interesting since The Civil Wars in the 80s. No, listen, I am a story-teller. And telling a story does not mean there is no room for social criticism.
McVicar is also quoted by Michel Debrocq in an article (Entre féerie et terreur, December 7) for LeGuide.be:
Why do we invent stories of fairies and spirits, when we know they don't exist? It's a way to explore the dark side of our nature, which we relegate to fairy tales, ghost stories...that way we don't have to live it. For me, a fairy is a Scottish spirit, closer to a troll. They are disturbing creatures, sometimes violent, not at all good-natured. I think it's like that in Shakespeare, and Britten is always sensitive to the dark beast lurking beneath the surface. To accompany Oberon, he uses the celesta, the same instrument he connects to Quint in The Turn of the Screw. This has nothing to do with Tchaikovsky's Sugarplum Fairy! Britten uses it in his two operas in a truly terrifying way. The role of the trickster Puck in the opera is spoken and acrobatic. Puck is the eternal child, completely amoral. He lives outside of society's conventions, with no sense of responsibility: he is the wild child. We have a circus artist, David Greeves, to play the role at La Monnaie.
I would really like to see this opera performed live.

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