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Summer Opera 2006: "Midsummer Night's Dream"

Iride Martinez as Tytania, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Glyndebourne Festival, 2006, photo by Mike HobanThe word from Glyndebourne has been fairly encouraging. This summer they are doing a couple revivals, playing it pretty safe, but then there is this Betrothal in a Monastery (more about that another time). One of the revivals was a tried and true production of an opera that should be performed more (especially on our side of the Atlantic), Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream. It has one of the great roles for countertenor, perfectly cast, in Oberon, sung this summer by Bejun Mehta. Warwick Thompson wrote a review (Glyndebourne's Magic 'Midsummer Night's Dream' Has Spry Puck, June 16) for Bloomberg News:

With its sylvan glades, secret gardens and mysterious pleached alleys, Glyndebourne must be one of the best opera houses in which to see Benjamin Britten's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," especially when the pastoral magic outside is capped by an even greater magic on stage. Not all revivals of Peter Hall's brilliant 1981 production -- deservedly one of the cornerstones of Glyndebourne's repertory -- have ensured that's the case. Fortunately, the 25th anniversary staging, in repertory through Aug. 7, is a delight. Hall's idea is to make the setting, a "Wood near Athens," as much a character in the drama as Oberon or Lysander. Designer John Bury fills the stage with silvery moonlit foliage, yet when you look closely you can see that the trunks of the trees contain shrouded human beings. Occasionally they shift position, rustling their leaves as they go. Crouching children covered in tufts of grass move across the stage. Enormous branches slide up and down from the wings. When everything all moves at once, the effect is breathtaking.

It's a perfect setting for the fairy squabbles of Oberon and Tytania, and Bejun Mehta and Iride Martinez are excellent in those roles. Mehta has a powerful countertenor voice with a piercing but rich sound, and Martinez displays delightfully fluty and agile coloratura. It doesn't hurt that both look great on stage in their Elizabethan costumes, either. [...] There's plenty of energy to compensate in the performance of 11-year-old Jack Morlen as Puck. With his fragile-looking body and acrobatic tricks, he electrifies the stage every time he swings down in a cute little chariot. [...] Conductor Ilan Volkov doesn't conjure up the magical half- lights that Britten himself does on his recording, though he brings a sense of drama and pacing to the score. This is a dreamy "Dream," and worth a trip to the forests of Sussex.
Tim Ashley reviewed this production (A Midsummer Night's Dream, June 13) for The Guardian:
This year, Glyndebourne is into comedies about erotic manipulation. Hard on the heels of the masquerades and partner-swapping in both Cosi Fan Tutte and Die Fledermaus comes Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream with its supernatural interventions into the vagaries of desire and its at times disquieting intimations of both cruelty and transience. eter Hall's staging, first seen in 1981, has often been described as a perfect realisation of a fairy tale, though Hall also continuously reminds us of the opera's dark undertow. The forest is both an enchanted place and a weird living entity with a will of its own. When his crew of fairy children are out of sight, Bejun Mehta's Oberon lubriciously fondles the sleeping Tytania's body before squirting the juice of his magic flower into her eyes. No other production quite so unerringly captures both the callousness of the trick Oberon plays on Tytania, or the sense of sexual freedom and life-enhancing wonder that Bottom experiences on encountering her. Reality is safe and chilly by comparison: towards the end, the humans gravitate back to a world of frigid baronial splendour where they need log fires in all weathers to keep them warm.
Geoff Brown wrote a review (A Midsummer Night's Dream, June 13) for the London Sunday Times that had this to say about the contributions of the child performers:
Actually, for small people that magic may have increased. There is now the Harry Potter factor. What is Puck but a Hogwarts pupil with a ginger shock who hasn’t sorted his spells? Jack Morlen, aged 11, bold as brass, assumes the role with great bravado and the spindliest legs that ever walked through frozen ice. Trinity Boys Choir, Glyndebourne’s regular fairies, undertake their singing and floor-crawling with unusual purpose; chorus master David Swinson and the revival director, James Robert Carson, must have worked them hard.
George Loomis wrote a review of the early productions at Glyndebourne (At Glyndebourne, a heartfelt and sexy 'Così', June 27) for the International Herald Tribune. Here is what he had to say about the Britten:
Traditional productions might be said to be thriving at Glyndebourne, given the delights of Peter Hall's quarter-century old staging of Britten's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," revived by James Robert Carson. John Bury's designs charmingly depict the forest as trees and shrubs (manned by human beings) swaying gently in the wind, and little gossamer-winged fairies look adorable in their Elizabethan costumes. Bejun Mehta sang with great sensitivity as Oberon - a welcome change to hear a countertenor in a role actually written for a countertenor. He was well matched by Iride Martinez's glistening Tatania, with Kate Royal (Helena) and Matthew Rose (Bottom) also making fine contributions. Britten's music is often unobtrusive, yet it cannily complements Shakespeare's text. It is a tribute to his achievement that the rude mechanicals' play-within-the-play can be as funny as the Shakespeare original. The score's onomatopoeic touches and lean, evocative textures were beautifully realized by Ilan Volkov and the London Philharmonic.
I am gearing up to hear Thomas Adès's attempt to make The Tempest into an opera, here in Santa Fe, and rereading Shakespeare's text I am struck by how crazy it is to think of making an opera out of words like that. It's probably easier to do with a libretto in a foreign language, where the ghost of Shakespeare is not hanging around. Be that as it may, Britten may have made something in his opera on Dream that is actually better than Shakespeare.


Clayton Koonce said...

These are wonderful descriptions of the production at Glyndebourne. David Daniels was the Met's Oberon in 2002, but we clearly would benefit from more circulation of Midsummer Night's Dream here. I've seen Billy Budd by the WNO and Turn of the Screw by Opera Vivente in Baltimore in recent seasons. I believe I missed OV's own chamber production of Midsummer a few seasons ago. Thanks again for the opera news.

Charles T. Downey said...

Clayton, thanks for the comment. I hope they will release a DVD.