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The Met's 'Midsummer Night's Dream'

The Metropolitan Opera did not get around to staging my favorite opera by Benjamin Britten, A Midsummer Night's Dream, until 1996. I did not get to see it then, or when it was revived in 2002. For the composer's centenary, the company returned to this colorful production, directed by Tim Albery with sets and costumes by Antony McDonald, this season. It was well worth the trek up to Manhattan for this past Saturday's matinee, only the second time we have reviewed this opera, after a charming staging at Wolf Trap in 2010. It is not really an opera for small children, although the large number of them in the audience for this performance likely had no awareness of the disturbing undercurrent of this work for Britten -- the interest of Oberon, the "King of Shadows" as Puck names him, in a changeling boy that his queen, Tytania, tries unsuccessfully to keep from him. Britten likely saw in the character his own attraction to boys, possibly never realized. The end of Act I, when Oberon leads the boy offstage, after putting Tytania out of commission, is a chilling moment.

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Britten, A Midsummer Night's Dream, F. Lott, I. Cotrubas, J. Bowman, Glyndebourne Opera, London Philharmonic, B. Haitink

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The cast this time around is fiercely good, beginning with a solid foursome of confused lovers. Tenor Joseph Kaiser continues to impress me as one of the finer singers of his generation, and he was a robust Lysander here, matched beautifully with the superlative Hermia of mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong, who has likewise been at the top of my list for some time. Erin Wall was moving and intense as Helena, with both women having a lot of fun as they argued about Helena's height, paired with the vain Demetrius of Michael Todd Simpson. The fairy world was represented just as strongly, with countertenor Iestyn Davies in smooth and creepy voice as Oberon, a clear and never shrill tone that was impeccably beautiful and therefore chilling. Sometimes tending toward shrillness was the Tytania of soprano Kathleen Kim, who handled the coloratura challenges of the role, more demanding, although the costuming idea made her look less than regal.

Other Articles:

Zachary Woolfe, A World of Childhood Innocence Intersects With a Grown-Up Reality (New York Times, October 13)

Sophia Vastek, Met’s captivating “Midsummer Night’s Dream” finds Britten’s magical mix (New York Classical Review, October 12)

David Mermelstein, A Battle for Britten (Wall Street Journal, October 9)

Previous Productions:

Patrick Diamond (Wolf Trap, 2010)
Peter Hall (Glyndebourne, 2006)
David McVicar (De Munt, 2004)
Robert Carsen (Aix-en-Provence, 1995)
The opera benefited from the close-knit camaraderie of the singers playing the Rude Mechanicals, the troupe of country bumpkins who rehearse and put on the worst play imaginable. Indisputably at the top was a broad, rough-voiced Bottom from bass Matthew Rose, yet another singer with a fine history in our ears. He was physically oafish in just the right sort of way, fitting perfectly into the delightful ass's head that Puck puts on him, a good foil for the whiny Flute of Barry Banks and the gentle-giant Snug of Paul Corona. Ryan McKinny and Tamara Mumford made a handsome couple as Theseus and Hippolyta in the third act, leading the supercilious criticism of the Rude Mechanicals' performance, with the three couples seated on two rows of bright red Metropolitan Opera seats.

The children's chorus, ably prepared by Anthony Piccolo, gave the needed air of innocence, to counteract the coat-and-vested donnishness of Oberon. The fairies generally wear very pretty black wings, which helps dispel some of the harmless associations of these mischievous creatures, especially when Puck, played energetically by Riley Costello, ripped a pair off one of the chorus members. To underscore the malevolence of Oberon, the direction hinted at an abusive history between Oberon and Puck, who has now grown too old to please Oberon. Oberon's color, a bright green, stains the hems of the lovers' clothes as they fall into his power, their garments growing like weeds into long robes which they carry about like vines attached to them. The stage is framed by a glowing proscenium, with many details that appear drawn by hand. Colors glow luridly (lighting by Matthew Richardson), while various scenes flow by in the background, like a storybook, with the singers appearing to walk through the landscape. Conductor James Conlon rounded out the magical atmosphere, caressing this most alluring score from its first disorienting string glissandi.

This production will be repeated three more times, through October 31, at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

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