Britten – A Midsummer Night’s Dream

La Monnaie, Brussels – December 26 2004

Conductor: Ivor Bolton. Production: David McVicar. Sets & costumes: Rae Smith. Oberon: Michael Chance. Tytania: Laura Claycomb. Puck: David Greeves. Theseus: Brindley Sherratt. Hippolyta: Ruby Philogene. Lysander: Alfred Boe. Demetrius: Leigh Melrose. Hermia: Deanne Meek. Helena: Madeline Bender. Bottom: Laurent Naouri. Quince: Henry Waddington. Flute: Richard Coxon. Snug: Gwynne Howell. Snout: Kim Schrader. Starveling: Lionel Lhote.

I had joked, before going, about the timeliness of programming A Midsummer Night’s Dream over the Christmas period. But as the emphasis in this production is definitely on the magical, to magical effect, it turned out to be a good Christmas show after all. I had other reasons to worry, too: my mother was joining us for this one and she likes her opera to be escapist, which to her means, among other things, in period gear. I thought McVicar might let her down. Remember his Agrippina? Of that, I wrote, for example “Nerone, a breeches role, is a Di-Caprio-lookalike spoilt brat, sometimes in streetwear, sometimes in a tuxedo, hands thrust in pockets, gauche in his lovemaking, jerky in his actions after sniffing quantities of cocaine.” He did a similar job this season, complete with cocaine, on Poppea in Paris, one I missed. But in the end, I was surprised and my mother was delighted.

The quickest and simplest way to describe this production is to say that it was rather like Arthur Rackham illustrations brought to life, although Rae Smith’s programme notes make no mention of Rackham’s influence. A silvery, satiny, cobwebby curtain rises to reveal the single set: the vast attic of a country house, filled with wardrobes, tallboys and chests of drawers, “a dusty place with a long history, where the inhabitants have piled up their old junk, their ancestor’s possessions, objects they want to forget but among which apples have been left to dry,” explains Smith. “An old tree, struck by lightning, has crashed through the roof; as it filters into the room, the moonlight projects a web of shadows on the floor, as in a wood. This space is thus transformed into a magical place where strange things happen and we don’t quite know where the attic ends and the darkness begins.”

The opera does not, therefore, take place in a wood near Athens; but – magically! - the wood appears every time the doors of a magnificently baroque old armoire are opened. The lovers are dressed as if in 1900, but the world of Oberon, Tytania and the elves is located “in the 17th century, at the time of Charles I and II. [They] seem lost in time, as if, hundreds of years ago, they had come together in this attic, never to leave it again.” Those who worry about productions not respecting the composer’s intentions might take comfort from Britten’s own recognition, in an interview in The Observer in 1960 that, if it turned out to have any merit, A Midsummer Night’s Dream would go on to be performed in all kinds of productions, in all kinds of places and in all kinds of languages.

And this set works: it makes sense for the lovers to wander in to argue or take refuge there, or for the Mechanicals to choose the attic as a place to rehearse. The magic works too, thanks to a combination of the fairies’ cobwebby costumes, the giant moon and dusky, dappled lighting, Puck’s amazing feats, flying in and out or climbing up walls, and the children’s well-rehearsed, slightly sinister naughtiness and noises.

The cast was dominated by Laura Claycomb’s Tytania, appropriately regal in both voice and bearing, giving us faultless coloratura and some beautifully-shaped top notes trailing off to perfectly-controlled pianissimi. Laurent Naouri (Bottom) stood out among the Mechanicals. Michael Chance’s Oberon, however, was devoid of personality, let alone kingly charisma, and what was possibly intended as style or effect sounded too often like poor intonation.

The quartet of lovers formed a solid ensemble and acted well, as Britten hoped; so it seems a little unkind to claim that they, too, lacked distinct personality. Overall, the boys were better than the girls, whose voices offered insufficient contrast, and Madeline Bender should take care: her voice already has a “tearing” sound at the top, where it becomes distinctly unstable. Diction could have been better all round. On the whole, apart from Claycomb and Naouri, the production might be said to have been slightly “under-cast,” a shame when it was so good (although I continue to prefer Robert Carsen’s, cleaner in look and clearer in action, and with a funnier “play” at the end).

The orchestra could have been better. Perhaps they’d overdone the Christmas festivities; but more likely, they’re simply less familiar with Britten than Verdi.

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