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Recent Opera Round-up



3. A Midsummer Night's Dream. Opera North. Grand Theatre, Leeds.

Opera North's major successes under the Nicholas Payne-Paul Daniel regime were too many to name. Dukas' Ariane et Barbe-bleue, Thomas's Hamlet, Schreker's Der ferne Klang, Nielsen's Maskerade, Weill's Lost in the Stars, Cherubini's Medea, Verdi's Jerusalem, Luisa Miller and Falstaff - plus a clutch of brand-new operas from Benedict Mason (the brilliantly spoofy Playing Away), Robert Saxton (the slightly static Caritas) and Simon Holt (The Nightingale's to Blame) - reveal the imagination that went into planning seasons that soared far beyond the groundwork repertoire of Giovannis, Bohèmes and Traviatas.

If evidence were needed that the Leeds-based company's fortunes are not doomed to wither and wane with the recent luring of Daniel plus his mentor to London's Coliseum, Moshe Leisher and Patrice Caurier's largely inspired staging of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream will do very nicely thank you. Not only did the orchestra play outstandingly well for Daniel's American successor, Steven Sloane, right from from the suppressed orgasm of the mysterious, super-charged string glissando that opens the entire work; the clarity and restraint of the production - and indeed the visuals as a whole - never ceased to mesmerise. But then, Dream - the fairies and mechanicals scenes at least - is a crystalline gem; to muddy it with by clumsy direction or over-indulged production values would be little short of sacrilege.

This staging felt delightfully loyal to Shakespeare and Britten alike. By and large Dream stands or falls by Oberon, Puck and the fairies : the Australian countertenor Christopher Josey had most of the crucial ingredients : a winning voice that cuts to the quick; a mannerist way of moving which conjured up unnerving, tingling sensations of otherworldliness; and sufficient youthful sexuality to make his near-congress with Titania onstage not merely titillating but - equally importantly - somehow primeval. They were helped by a relatively good, game Puck (Jan Knightley) and the sheer proficiency of the boy-fairies - here not ENO's brilliantly marshalled, professional team of insect-play bell-boys, but four top-notch young vocalists, with strong presence from their first magical, horned entry, and more than adequate acting skills.

The lovers, who so often tend to reveal one weak link or another, had none; the l950s setting, with boy and girl arriving onstage in what looked like an Austin Healey, provided a cheerful touch. James Rutherford's bluff Theseus was unusually strong. Leisher and Caurier never quite got the less natural actors to act, but they made advantageous use of frontstage (of which directors are inordinately shy) and were blessed with some nice mock-barbershop from the six yokels, a Bottom of real visual as well as vocal talent (Jonathan Best), a Flute of unusual pathos (Josey's fellow-Queenslander Christopher Saunders) and an ass's head that seemed to acquire a tragic personality all of its own. Titania's Lucretia-like nocturne was exquisitely played; omnipresent moons of various shapes and sizes engineered by set and lights designers Christian Fenouillat and Christophe Forey maintained just the right crepuscular mood. The final uncostuming at the close, when all address the audience in a neat coup de theatre, was as disarming as the composer could have wished.

Copyright © 4 April 2000 Roderic Dunnett, Coventry, UK