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Britten,  A Midsummer Night’s Dream: City of London Sinfonia, Rory Macdonald (conductor), Olivia Fuchs (director).  Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, London  28.1.2008 (AO)

Cast :

William Towers (Oberon), Gillian Keith (Titania), Jami Reid-Quarrell (Puck), Mark Beesley (Theseus), Emma Selway (Hippolyte), Ed Lyon (Lysander), Jacques Imbrailo (Demetrius), Daniele Lehner (Hermia), Matthew Rose (Bottom), Mark Richardson (Quince), Andreww Kennedy (Flute), Jeremy White (Snug), Colin Judson (Snout), Krzysztof Szumanski (Starveling), Fairies : Robert Hawkins, Jesus Duque, Tom Batstone, Kieran Brunt.  Chorus : Members of Tiffin Boy’s School Choir.

Gillian Keith (Titania) and William Towers (Oberon)

A Midsummer’s Nights Dream may not be in the league of Britten’’s finest works, but it’s popular, because it’s entertaining.  This is a revival of the 2005 production, including many members of the original cast.  Some of the singers tonight sang their roles earlier in an acclaimed student production at RAM in 2001. This experience was what made this revival special, for the performances were superb.

The Director, Olivia Fuchs, intuitively grasps the soul of the opera, for this production revolves around Puck, the changeling who connects the world of myth to ordinary humans. This is the basic premise of the entire plot, that different modes of reality co-exist. This Puck, Jami Reid-Quarrell, is utterly stunning – half human, half mythical creature, exuding physical energy, while the other characters exist in a passive world of dreams and magic.  Reid-Quarrell’s earthy Puck thus magnifies the parallels between Puck and Bottom.  Where Puck is elemental, Bottom is earth bound, his transformation all the more ironic as a result.  As Bottom, Matthew Rose exuded solid physical presence. Yet, he’s not quite such a fool as Oberon and Titania think. In the third act, during the workmen’s play, Rose’s portrayal of Bottom steals the show.  When the Duke and Duchess mock the workmen for being gauche, Bottom answers back.  It’s not quite subversion but comes close to unsettling the established scheme of things.  Mark Beesley’s horrified expression spoke volumes.

Jami Reid-Quarrell as Puck

Reid-Quarrell’s Puck also connected to the world of the circus.  He leaps down from the rafters, hangs upside down on a rope, and pops up as if out of nowhere.  Circus is about illusion.  It suggests that basic laws of gravity can be defied.  Again, this reinforces the theme of shifting reality. Yet there is also a musical logic in this portrayal.  Unlike, say, Billy Budd, where the orchestra plays a powerful, almost symphonic role in the development of the opera as a whole, the orchestra here plays a more conventionally illustrative role.   Again, this fits with the concept of the opera, which is a series of masques unfolding in linear progression.  Thus the imaginative orchestration of set pieces, such as harpsichord and drum, or later, harp and pizzicato strings.  Like the action, the orchestral ideas quickly move on, like different acts in a circus, their object to keep the action moving.  Britten even includes “musical jokes” like a quirky percussion instrument that looks like a wall paper scraper but makes amorphous sounds varying between a bell and a wind instrument.   The “dream” sequences at the beginning and end of the opera are created by glissando, drawn out so slowly the sounds seem to smear : think of Hagen’s dream music wobbling almost out of control. Britten is having fun.

This isn’t a production that dwells on the darker aspects of the plot, nor its surreal mysteries.  The fairies mill about dressed in boarding school issue pyjamas!  Yet again, this is quite perceptive. For the magic here isn’t supernatural but lies in the world of human imagination.   The boarding school image reminds us of Britten himself, who in many ways was an eternal schoolboy.  His fascination with youth refers, not to prurience, but to an acknowledgement of a time in a person’s life when all seems possible, when innocence is unsullied by experience.  The four main fairies, Hawkins, Duque, Batstone and Brunt, performed with almost professional confidence. It will stand them in good stead whatever they do in the future.  Some of the boy’s voices were approaching that stage when their voices change, but all the more beautiful for that, because this so eloquently captures the poignant moment between childhood and adulthood.

Krzysztof Szumanski  as Starveling

Still, it was the adult performances which excelled. Counter tenor roles are far too rare, and William Towers is one of the finest in his fach : never miss any opportunity to hear him.  His Oberon is a marvel.  Perhaps Britten was drawn to the voice type because it defies easy stereotype. Boy singers are doomed by physiology : adult countertenors go on to develop and broaden their range and depth as they mature.  Jacques Imbrailo, a Jette Parker Young Artist, again impressed : he was a good Owen Wingrave in April 2007, and definitely someone to watch. Andrew Kennedy, who has sung Flute so often he must have it note perfect, was able to act up the camp scenes with real panache.  Overall, this was a strong cast, each fully in character, which was important, for the opera grows out of these vignettes.  Each of the workmen, for example, was well defined as a personality.  Entries were precise, and the ensemble pieces flowed very well indeed.

Anne Ozorio

Pictures © Johan Persson

For a link to the symphonic aspects of Billy Budd click  Here.

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