James Conway created this production of Britten’s only Shakespeare opera in the spring of 2004 and I saw it at the time: it made a vivid impression. Six years later I can only say that it has matured magnificently into a convincing, thoughtful, clever piece of music theatre that brings out the genius of the work. Superbly well played and conducted, with an excellent cast of principals, it does credit to ETO and to the artistic standards to which they aspire. This is a production that could be seen on any stage in the world – high praise indeed.
Shakespeare frames his play with the formality of a court scene in the first and last acts, and the magical world of the forest in between: we are reminded that there is a normal/abnormal or magical/normal sequence of events here. The Britten/Pears adaptation (and recent scholarship shows that it was very much a joint effort, even though Pears has traditionally taken credit for the book) plunges us straight into the abnormal: anything can happen from the outset in this forest, and it frequently does. And in Conway’s production that includes bringing the whole of the last act – the court of Theseus – into the forest too, for an improvised show by the mechanicals, with a huge rug spread out over the branches and tendrils around the massive fallen tree that dominates the set throughout (for the final scene the trunk is hauled upright and pinned at an angle, nicely framing the scene below). This makes perfect sense aesthetically, dramatically and economically – all the visual effects are concentrated on a single set, often beautifully and atmospherically lit, and the tree provides a variety of hiding places, barriers to advancement, and a bit of extra height for those who stand astride it. The look of the whole production, designed by Joanna Parker, makes perfect sense.
Except for one detail (which I do not remember so clearly from 2004). Stage left there is a black rope, under or over or round which characters pass to enter the forest. Perhaps it is intended to delineate a barrier between the human world and the realm of Oberon and Tytania. But in terms of stagecraft it merely looks clumsy and does not work. It is a detail that could easily be omitted.
Dream is an ensemble opera, with a great deal of interplay between members of the orchestra – here conducted, as in 2004, with total assurance of Britten’s idiom by Michael Rosewell – and with a real requirement for stage and pit to be constantly aware of what each other are doing. So much is said by the orchestra that has to be matched exactly by what we see onstage. I was immensely encouraged to see and hear a rare degree of precision on the Maltings stage, which has a totally singer-friendly acoustic but not always the best sight lines to the conductor on its large and flat expanse of stage. But for Rosewell the musical pulse was steady, cues were taken on the beat and the overall sound balance was near exemplary.
The quartet of lovers was strongly cast, Michael Bracegirdle and Robert Davies pursuing (in the right/wrong order) Niamh Kelly and Laura Mitchell. It is sometimes said that Britten under-characterised these parts and gave them little of interest to sing, but on this occasion I found some really fine singing to enjoy, put across with vocal (and dramatic) assurance, warm tone and plenty of colour. As Demetrius, Davies impressed me hugely (and he had apparently sung a fine Figaro the previous evening). The same is true of Kelly, who projected her well-focused mezzo and who made Hermia come to life. The mechanicals were led, as in 2004, by Andrew Slater as Bottom and he did not put a foot wrong: he now sings the part with easy assurance, acts credibly, resists the temptation to overdo the broad comedy and ham things up and as a result is all the more likeable in the role. His account of Bottom’s dream was splendid. The sight gag of him wearing a donkey’s codpiece did not really work after the initial guffaw, for he had to remain onstage for quite a long time with nowhere to put it; but this was a rare miscalculation. I also took note of Mark Wilde as Flute, liking his fluent and clear tenor sound, and both he and Slater blended in well with their fellow mechanicals.
There was however one singing performance that gave me pause for thought, and in this opera it is a fairly crucial one – Jonathan Peter Kenny as Oberon. He is a wonderful artist, with absolutely secure tuning and real musicality, but his sound is simply not big and impressive enough for the part. No indulgence was craved, so I assume that he was in ‘normal’ voice, but every time Oberon sang, the whole dynamic of the opera sagged. One had to listen very hard to discern the narrative line, the individual words and as a result Oberon was no truly commanding presence. He looked the part all right – the makeup and costume is superb – but his voice projection was simply not up to it, even though Rosewell took the orchestral dynamic right down to a minimum whenever Kenny sang. So I worry for him in the role, which he failed to assume with anything approaching vocal authority.
This was all the more a pity because opposite him Gillian Ramm was in full and splendid voice as Tytania. She brought a sense of danger to the role, made her striking presence felt and soared above the orchestra in all those crucial places where Britten gives his queen of the fairies her head. Needless to say, in the Tytania/Oberon duets, there was only one protagonist’s voice audible. But this was a fine singing and acting performance by Ramm, who showed once again that she is a considerable stage creature.
Cue hunting horns, baying ever louder as the pack approaches, and into the forest come the final two principals, Theseus and Hippolyta. As the latter, Lise Christensen looked striking and projected her voice well, without however totally convincing me that it is the part for her. But her conqueror, Theseus as sung by Nicholas Lester was in superb voice from the moment he set foot onstage: a full, rounded, warm baritone sound that made many in the audience wish we could have had more of him! (His Count Almaviva in Figaro, also the previous night, was highly praised). And so to the operatic parody of the Pyramus and Thisbe entertainment: it sounded as zany and as anarchic as ever, without quite hitting the comic heights that this absurd little interlude occasionally does. By that stage of the show however the audience was completely gripped, and a fine ETO Dream was home and dry.
A word for David Gooderson, acting the part of Puck as a grown man in bondage to Oberon. His struggle to be released from the ropes that bind his upper body succeeds in the end, and he is free. Gooderson was always a lively presence onstage and it was refreshing to hear Puck’s lines spoken by an intelligent, mature actor rather than by the customary treble voice. I am not sure that this directorial choice adds anything revelatory to the opera, but it is perfectly acceptable and does not jar. In fact, it makes for rather a touching end.
So all in all, I found this an enchanting production, finely played, well conducted and sung by (overall) a terrific cast of singers. And having the final act set in the forest gave Conway an interesting idea. For as the rustics start their dance, they invite members of the court to join in and the whole stage romp starts to get a bit saucy, all barriers broken down – until the main protagonists remember who they are, shake themselves down and resume their proper station. The forest enticing them to be ‘abnormal’ to the last – it is a neat and logical idea. The show plays until the end of May, first in Perth and then in Cambridge – catch it if you possibly can.
Photo credits: Richard Hubert Smith