Britten is often thought of as a precocious composer, enjoying a brilliant success as a young man, especially in opera, but with his inspiration gradually thinning out as he became a pillar of the establishment in late middle age. However, his adaptation of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ composed as late as 1960 rather gives the lie to that viewpoint. It is a tall order to find music to add to Shakespeare at any age, but here he takes Shakespeare’s text on directly, with just a few nips and tucks, and finds a musical language of quicksilver grace, romantic ardour and comic pastiche that manages to add meaningfully to the hallowed original.
It also makes a wonderful choice as an opera to be performed by the highly talented students of the Guildhall School, who are both fully equal to the challenges of the music, while also being the right age to play the roles. Such a relief and a revelation to see this piece performed not by jaded middle-aged professionals but young people experiencing the emotions of the lovers, entering fully into the joshing, roistering humour of the ‘rude mechanicals,’ and willing to fly with the magic and wonder of the forest. They are guided by an astute creative team which includes an impressive roster of professionals who bring their skills to bear on the direction, design, lighting, and video projection. The result is a fusion of energy, wisdom, flair and heart that makes this far and away the finest of many productions of this opera this reviewer has seen.
There are so many points of excellence from which to depart – from the pin-sharp delicacy and precision of the orchestral playing and conducting, the quirky choreography of the fairies, the exuberant fearlessness of most of the singing, the sheer fun of on-stage operatic pastiche of Pyramus and Thisbe. However, any review of what is most distinctive about this production must begin with Ruari Murchison’s set – a miracle of abstract simplicity that is both brilliantly practical and distilling of the mysterious ambience of the forest. It was a kind of double helix or Barbara Hepworth sculpture with criss-crossing strings that could equally be the fibrous confusion of the forest, the gossamer cobwebs of deception woven by the fairies, or the pools of lit repose in which confusion and stress are replaced by rest and reflection. Mark Jonathan’s lighting design deftly matched the moods of the overall design, music and text with tableaus of creamy or silvered moonlight and intermittent washes of stronger night-time colour, especially when joined to Karl Dixon’s video work which enhanced some of the fantasy sequences such as Oberon’s aria ‘I know a bank where the wild thyme blows.’
Cast A were performing on the press night, and there were no weak links. The two couples of lovers were uniformly excellent, whether in lyrical or petulant vein. They have to project music of Verdian intensity and demonstrate fine comic timing, and all of this was on offer. They made the relationships believable through their acting too, which is not always the case by any means. The mechanicals had great fun both in rehearsal and performance of their play, well characterised and differentiated from one another. Sam Carl was quite outstanding as Bottom, whether as weaver or ass: his presence compelled attention in all he did and sang. Such a pleasure to hear this role truly and lyrically sung, rather than just played for laughs! He also benefited from a wonderfully light articulated donkey’s head that clearly owed a lot to ‘Warhorse’- so much better than the usual hampering monstrosity.
The unique sound-world of the forest that Britten conjures up – slithering strings that seem to be the breath of the night, twinkling xylophone, plentiful harp passages and high violin lines – is the dreamy setting for the music of Oberon and Titania on whom the greatest musical burdens lie. Madison Nonoa and Collin Shay were equal to the challenges. Nonoa offered a pure, piercing, ethereal sound, a very different timbre from the female mortals in the cast. Shay took some time to warm up and the exquisite arching line of ‘I know a bank’ was too much broken up; but thereafter it was a commanding performance, mysterious yet authoritative. Around them the fairies wove a tight ensemble nimbly projected with William Sharma in the spoken role of Puck providing a lower-toned sonic contrast.
This opera is a miraculous achievement in which the composer finds a sonic framework which complements Shakespeare, adding meaning to a text that already has a verbal music of its own. But it does not always come over as a miracle in performance and it is hugely to the credit of Guildhall that they find the right alchemy to do so. Alien but not alienating, mysterious but still ingratiating, elusive and allusive, this masterpiece gives up something different on every hearing; but rarely has the final chorus of ‘Now until the break of day’, seemed such a natural and rewarding culmination of the journey.
- By Benjamin Britten
- Directed by Martin Lloyd-Evans
- Libretto by William Shakespeare (adapted by Britten and Peter Pears)
- Cast includes: Seán Boylan, Sam Carl, Samantha Clarke, Frederick Jones, Lucy McAuley, Madison Nonoa, William Sharma, Collin Shay
- GSMD, Silk Street Theatre
- Until 4th March 2019
- Time: 19:00