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'Midsummer Night's Dream' at Wolf Trap

Ryan Belongie (Oberon) and Alexander Strain (Puck) in
A Midsummer Night's Dream (photo by Kim Pensinger Witman
for the Wolf Trap Opera Company) -- More photos
Benjamin Britten's operatic adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of my favorite 20th-century operas, which until now I have not managed to see in a live production. Having had to miss a production a couple years ago from Maryland Opera Studio (and David Kneuss's staging for Tanglewood before that), I was not going to make the same mistake with Wolf Trap Opera's new production, which opened on Friday night. Britten's music seems to make sense of this odd play, in a very modern way, stemming especially from the alluring, yet menacing figure of Oberon. For Britten, in whose works the loss of innocence is a major theme, there is something threatening and not quite right in the Fairy King's obsession with the "changeling child" protected by his queen, Tytania. It comes through in the magical, shimmering, otherworldly orchestration, which is at its most brilliant in the fairy sections of the opera.

Although it seems a little surprising to me, some people are still put off by Britten's harmonic and melodic style: at the end of the first act, which is heavy on Oberon's menace, a large portion of the audience got in their cars and drove away. This is a shame, because by the third act the opera becomes a rollicking farce with the performance of the "rude mechanicals," costumed in this production (directed by Patrick Diamond, costumes designed by Camille Assaf) as a highway construction crew in reflective vests and overalls. The concept included a mullet for Nicholas Masters's Bottom, played as the paragon of inept vanity, which required only a large pair of ears for him to be transformed into an ass. Among the group of six, the full low range of Kenneth Kellogg as Quince stood out, as did the cross-dressed hilarity of David Portillo's Flute, complete with voice cracks as he tested out his feminine range (Peter Pears, who created the role, would have been proud). Nathaniel Peake should win some sort of versatility award, having switched gears from the sadistic Soliman in Zaide to the hapless Snout, whose blithely tone-deaf performance as the Wall in the Act 3 play brought down the house.

available at Amazon
Britten, A Midsummer Night's Dream, F. Lott, I. Cotrubas,
J. Bowman, Glyndebourne Opera,
B. Haitink
The vocal discovery of the evening was countertenor Ryan Belongie, a smooth voice that did not edge into shrillness and was sized perfectly for the intimate size of the Barns. His mesmerizing stage presence had just enough threat to justify the title "King of Shadows" bestowed on him by Puck, a white-haired roué who stands out from the rest of the fairies, all topped with Tytania's bright orange hair. Ashlyn Rust's bright-edged soprano was suited to the pyrotechnical parts of Tytania, but an active vibrato made more sustained lines a little buzzy. The Arlington Children's Chorus had a summery, delicate sound as the fairy chorus (ably prepared by Kevin Carr), like all the fairies in bright green pajamas -- somewhat reminiscent of Robert Carsen's production for the Aix-en-Provence Festival -- except the quartet of named fairies, costumed as servants with feather-dusters. The quartet of lovers was well matched and convincingly directed, the nerdy Lysander of Paul Appleby and equally nerdy Helena of Rena Harms, in particular. Actor Alexander Strain was a high-energy presence in the spoken role of Puck.

Other Reviews:

Joan Reinthaler, Wolf Trap's "Midsummer Night's Dream" is a light, fun frolic (Washington Post, August 16)

Terry Ponick, Spend your 'Midsummer Night' at Wolf Trap's Barns (Washington Times, August 17)
Patrick Diamond's production was not quite as modernized and rife with malevolent imagery as David McVicar's staging for the Théâtre de la Monnaie but less traditional fairy land than Peter Hall's classic Glyndebourne production (available on DVD). A platform raised a tilted stage at an awkwardly raked angle (singers should get combat pay for having to walk on these), and designer Erhard Rom used the same spiral staircase at the back of the stage, in the alien prison in Zaide and here leading to Oberon's chamber above. Conductor Steven Osgood, in his Wolf Trap debut, led a vivid reading of the score, with only some of the string glissandi sounding less than tidy and unified. In spite of the separation of some of the instruments placed outside the small pit, the ensemble sounded convincingly on the same page most of the evening. It was a delightful end to a season of a few too many disappointments.

This production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream will be repeated once more, on Tuesday night (August 17, 8 pm), in the Barns at Wolf Trap.

1 comment:

reithl said...

Thanks to a kind-hearted patron who gave me a ticket gratis barely 15 minutes before the Friday evening curtain - I knew that the performance was sold out in advance but took a chance that someone might perchance return a ticket at the last minute - I was unable to make the other two performances - I managed to see the same performance - and was similarly enchanted by the quality of the singers.

It did, however, remind me of a non-musical film which dates from 1955, namely Ingmar Bergman's great tragicomedy "Smiles of a Summer Night." In that film, as in Britten's operatic "Midsummer Night's Dream," various couples become disentangled and progressively entangled, and it is up to Bergman, as the "Oberon" of his film odyssey, to bring resolution to the confusion. For those who did not do the cowardly thing and did not drive away after the first act, check out the Bergman masterpiece and see if it does not hold some similarities with the Britten chamber opera.