I haven’t seen many contemporary operas, nor have I ever read, or watched a play of Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s NIght Dream (I know)… So I was quite looking forward to the opera tonight.
It was funny! I didn’t realize the plot to be so completely asinine, but given its fantastical setting, we just went along with it and had a blast. We left the theater chuckling at the many precious lines sprouted by the characters. And although Britten’s music is not quite as ‘hummable’ as Verdi’s, he’s brilliant at using it to project the mood and atmosphere. In fact, the entire opera seemed more like a drama set to music… which I suppose was the case when Benjamin Britten and Peter Seares wrote it.
Article updated: 11/6/2010 07:39 PM
Enchantments abound in Lyric ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’
By Scott C. Morgan
It’s likely that some operagoers will intensely dislike Benjamin Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (particularly those who can’t tolerate anything written past the 19th century). I wasn’t surprised to see a few people bundled up and leaving at intermission on opening night of the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s premiere of Britten’s 1960 operatic masterpiece.
But instead of shouting “Philistines!” at those patrons, it was much easier to take satisfaction at what they ultimately missed out on: an enchanting and beautifully sung resolution featuring the Glen Ellyn-based chorus AnimaYoung Singers of Greater Chicago, plus the hilariously gut-busting play-within-a-play performance of “The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe.”
The fact that an opera can make audiences laugh so much is just one joyous aspect of this practically perfect Lyric staging of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Australian Director Neil Armfield and Scottish conductor Rory Macdonald both work in tandem to conjure a bewitching production that burnishes Britten’s hauntingly beautiful score filled with masterfully eerie orchestrations.
And Shakespeare also strongly shines through, since Britten and his longtime partner, tenor Peter Pears, used large swathes of the Bard’s original text to craft their comic libretto telling the stories of bickering fairies, mixed-up lovers and “rude mechanicals” attempting to stage a Roman tragedy.
Countertenor David Daniels not only soared vocally as the vengeful fairy king Oberon, but also physically in a suspended cage that kept him hovering high above the stage most of the time. With the lovely coloratura soprano Anna Christy as the motherly fairy queen Tytania, Daniels and the Anima children’s chorus all masterfully harmonized together to illuminate Britten’s otherworldly soundscape.
Soprano Erin Wall and mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong were fun as the respectively sparring sisters Helena and Hermia, while tenor Shawn Mathey and baritone Lucas Meachem were very ardent as the respective suitors Lysander and Demetrius (who charge in and out of love with different partners thanks to a magic herb).
In terms of funny business, the Lyric was particularly blessed to have British bass Peter Rose as Bottom, the blustery and overconfident weaver who gets “translated” into the donkey that Tytania falls passionately in love with.
Rose’s Bottom was eminently endearing as he domineered the rest of his fellow mechanicals, played with their own great sense of comic timing by tenor Keith Jameson, bass-baritone Sam Handley, tenor James Kyrshak, baritone Paul Scholten and bass Wilbur Pauley (special mention should also be made to the black Labrador dog Kiowa, formerly with Canine Companions for Independence and now owned by Nick Breheny of Schaumburg. Kiowa behaved well onstage and even had a comic bit in “Pyramus and Thisbe”).
And as Oberon’s go-between among all these characters, Chicago actor Esteban Andres Cruz made for a physically fit and energetically mischievous Puck. Though just a speaking role, Cruz emerged as a vital and integral part to the production’s success.
Visually, the staging is elegant and starkly simple. Production designer Dale Ferguson dominates the stage with a massive teal plastic sheet that undulates in the air in front of three angled Balinese-inspired forest paintings (turned upside down to show how nature is in disarray). For the mortals characters, the look is distinctly 1960s America, with Prince Theseus (bass-baritone Craig Irvin) and his bride Hippolyta (mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor) both looking fashionably Kennedy-esque. Lighting designer Damien Cooper illuminated all the stage magic colorfully and appropriately.
Fifty years on, Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” makes a very strong case to be included in the standard operatic repertory especially if productions are as wonderfully whipped up as this enchanting Lyric staging.