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Sleep and Dreams

MIKE WHEELER listens to
Britten's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'


A midsummer night's dream is the most extended of Britten's many journeys into the world of sleep and dreams. It was an extraordinary gamble to take such a well-loved play, cutting and re-shaping it but setting it otherwise unaltered. But it paid off by giving us one of the most magical (in the broadest sense) operas in the repertoire.

Designer Johan Engels sets Opera North's production (Theatre Royal, Nottingham, UK, 29 May 2008) in an Athenian wood full of semi-transparent perspex screens, conjuring up a landscape of shadowy presences, and surmounted by rows of bubble-like transparent balloons. Into this world of moon-washed silvery grey stumble the four lovers, in hippyish bright colours, and the Rustics, in more workaday browns and beiges. Colour gradually invades the lighting until in Act 2, when most of the characters are under some kind of hallucinatory enchantment, the stage is psychedelic riot. The colour drains away again in Act 3, and even the newly-wedded lovers are in sober black when they join Theseus and Hippolyta to watch the Rustics' Pyramus and Thisbe play.

'Pyramus and Thisbe' itself is properly hilarious, though it doesn't avoid the trap, common to productions of both Shakespeare's play and Britten's opera, of making the visual comedy so inventively funny that the comedy in the text tends to get submerged.

James Laing's Oberon was aloof rather than sinister, although 'I know a bank' had menace as well as nobility. Jeni Bern's Tytania, statuesque in the outer acts, was believably coquettish in her infatuation with the ass-headed Bottom in Act 2. Puck was the spring-heeled Tom Walker, often on all fours and sniffing like a dog. The quartet of lovers -- Elizabeth Atherton (Helena), Frances Bourne (Hermia), Peter Wedd (Lysander) and Mark Stone (Demetrius) -- were splendidly matched.

Of the Rustics, Richard Burkhardt's Quince was prone to just the tiniest hint of artistic temperament, Geoffrey Dalton's Starveling was dapper with a touch of seediness, while Colin Judson's touchingly diffident Flute rose magnificently to his showstopping spoof mad scene as Thisbe. As Bottom, Henry Waddington was delightfully matter-of-fact in Act 2, all at sea but determined to make the best of the situation. When it came to the play he was a shameless scene-stealer.

The fairies, in white tops and shorts and all sporting identical Midwich-Cuckoo blonde wigs, were somewhere between sweet and unnerving, with an appropriate degree of edge to their collective tone.

Conductor Stuart Stratford kept the pace moving while allowing space to luxuriate in the magical sonorities of this magical score.

Copyright © 5 June 2008 Mike Wheeler, Derby UK



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