A Midsummer Night’s Dream Benjamin Britten
**** (4 stars)
Whether or not you like Britten’s music, you are bound to appreciate the libretto, since it is taken from Shakespeare’s play – cut, rearranged a little, but essentially Will’s words – and thus a well-plotted and engaging story.
Oberon and Tytania, king and queen of the fairies, have quarrelled because both of them want the changeling boy currently in Tytania’s care. Oberon plans vengeance – with the assistance of Puck, and the juice of a magic flower, he will make her fall in love with some vile creature, and only lift the enchantment if she surrenders the boy. Lysander loves Hermia, but her father wants her to marry Demetrius, who also loves her: the lovers plan to elope and set off for the forest. Helena loves Demetrius but he ignores her and goes in search of Hermia: Helena follows him. Puck mistakenly uses the magic juice and causes Lysander to fall in love with Helena, who angrily thinks she is being made fun of.
Meanwhile, a group of working men are also in the forest, rehearsing a play to present to Duke Theseus and his bride Hyppolita. Puck gives Bottom the weaver an ass’s head, and contrives that he shall be the first thing Tytania sees on waking from sleep – she is enamoured, and he can’t quite believe his luck. Oberon is delighted by this but, appalled at the entanglement Puck has created for the four human lovers, he orders that it be sorted out.
The four lovers wake in the forest, and each finds their true love. Bottom, minus his ass’s head, is reunited with the other workmen and they rehearse their play, which is presented [amid much hilarity] to the Duke, Hippolyta, and the lovers. Oberon and Tytania are reconciled, and Puck is left to apologise to us – if we are offended, simply think that it was all a dream…
I first heard this opera many years ago, and was enthralled from the first notes of the overture, when the cello glissandi sounded to me like the breathing of the forest in which so much of the action takes place. In this production the forest isn’t so apparent: instead, a twilight world of shadows and dreams prevails. The fairy king and queen and their followers are dressed in shades of grey, and beds suspended from the ceiling represent the world of dreams and illusion which enwraps the human protagonists. The quartet of lovers are more down to earth in sensible nightwear, while the rustics are very solid, ‘salt of the earth’ and not over-bright, are easily dominated by larger-than-life Bottom, who is convinced he can do every part in the play better than the person cast. Theseus and Hyppolita are suitably regal, but have very little to do except bless the lovers and endure the rustics’ play.
The cast were excellent, a delightful blend of well-kent faces and singers new to me. Special praise must go to the children’s chorus and their chorus master – precise, rhythmical singing, always on pitch, and with clear contrast of crisp staccato and smooth hypnotic legato. Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth and Mustardseed are double-cast: Saturday’s youngsters were impressive and delightful – as were all the mischievous imps on stage.
It’s always a delight to watch the progress of present and former Scottish Opera Emerging Artists, and this production was blessed with a number of them. Elgan Llŷr Thomas’s Lysander sang lyrically and passionately; Lea Shaw and Charlie Drummond were a splendid pair of girls, sometimes loving, sometimes cat-fighting friends in adversity. Among the rustics, Arthur Bruce made a neat and precise Robin Starveling the tailor, and Glen Cunningham as Francis Flute, the bellows-mender, was a deliciously reluctant and then exuberantly over the top Thisbe. Queen of the evening for me was Catriona Hewitson as an imperious Tytania, making the vocal line seem easy, resolutely refusing to submit to her husband’s demand for the changeling child, and blindly enamoured of ass-headed Bottom.
Jonathan McGovern made a welcome return to the company as Demetrius – we last saw him in Flight. John Molloy, who sang Alindoro in the recent Cinderella, made a gallant attempt as Peter Quince the carpenter to keep the other rustics in order; Dingle Yandell returned to the company as Snug the joiner; Jamie McDougall added another amusing ‘drunken Scot’ [Tom Snout, the tinker] to his extensive repertoire; and David Shipley’s larger than life voice and personality dominated the stage whenever he had the opportunity: he has great comic timing too, and had the audience in fits of laughter – no wonder Bottom took the final curtain call!
It was a joy to me finally to see Jonathan Lemalu on stage – the Kiwi bass-baritone who began his career to great acclaim some twenty years ago. He didn’t have a lot to do as Duke Theseus, but what he did, he did with great nobility. He was ably partnered by Annie Reilly as Hippolyta – let’s hope we soon see her again, in a part which offers her more scope.
The other singer I was delighted to hear live for the first time was American counter-tenor Lawrence Zazzo, who first started singing Oberon while he was still a student at the Royal College of Music. The counter-tenor voice isn’t to everyone’s taste, but when well-produced can send shivers down my spine. I’d not previously heard him in Britten, but love the clarity, energy, flexibility and solidity of his singing in my recording of Handel’s Partenope. His Oberon was equally splendid vocally and impressed me with his deep understanding of the lyrics and finely-nuanced performance as the wronged fairy king.
And then there were the non-singing parts… Caleb Hughes was both the puppeteer for the enchanting young changeling child and the stunt double when Puck took to the air, while Michael Guest, a recent graduate of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, lit up the stage every time Puck appeared, more than held his own in this noble company of singers, and had the last words when the singing was done.
The applause was loud and prolonged, not only for the cast but also for the wonderful company of musicians that make up the Orchestra of Scottish Opera, and their conductor, Stuart Stratford. Credit must also go to the creative team – director Dominic Hill, designer Tom Piper, lighting designer Lizzie Powell, movement director Kally Lloyd-Jones, puppet designer and director Rachael Canning, fight director David Goodall, and consultant illusionist John Conway. Together they have created a magical dream world which is not sugar and spice and all things nice, where darkness mixes with and underpins the light, and the elements of dreams we might prefer not to confront peer out from the forest and invite us to follow them…
Scottish Opera, A Midsummer Night’s Dream ,Theatre Royal, Glasgow, Run Ended. Runs at the Festival Theatre from 1st to 5th March. For Tickets go to: https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/so-a-midsummer-nights-dream