Mischief in the Shadows – Britten’s Dream in Rome

ItalyItaly  Benjamin Britten, A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Rome Opera / James Conlon (conductor), premiere on 19.6.2012 (JB)

A corner of Shakespeare’s Empire has undergone a subtle change. It has not been ruthlessly invaded – not even quietly exploited. But for those who were at Aldeburgh on 11 June [1960] and for those who will follow them to Britten’s new opera in the months and years to come, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream will never be quite the same again.

These words from David Drew are quoted approvingly by the Earl of Harewood in his entry on Britten’s work in The New Kobbé’s Opera Book. The libretto was the joint work of the composer and his life-time lover, the tenor Peter Pears. They stick to Shakespeare’s actual words wherever they can and invent similar sounding phrases where they can’t. Lord Harewood is right to point out that they bring the oft neglected shadowy side of the story to the fore, especially where this concerns the person of Oberon, ably sung with admirable diction in Rome by Lawrence Zazzo.

His Lordship might have added that foreground shadowing also lends a certain weight to the proceedings. And in the opinion of this reviewer, that weight is more than the opera can reasonably take. It is predominant in the first act, where it seemed to my ears that Britten’s spontaneity had deserted him. This is a composer who loves nothing more than a few bars dropped in, in 5 or 7 time; but the delight of these uneven measures is Britten’s skill in delivering them as natural. Not so here. They sound contrived and forced; grafted on to the score rather than arising spontaneously out of it. Similarly, some familiarly Toyland touches of orchestration, which normally exude joy and charm, irritated by again sounding as if they had been forced onto the music. The orchestral timbres, however, were in every case realized in the finest detail under James Conlon’s baton.

But those irritations were mercifully restricted to the first act; the old Britten natural magic was beautifully in evidence for the remaining two acts.  George Harewood is right:  To turn a masterpiece in one medium into a work of similar calibre in another is a mighty undertaking and yet this is what Benjamin Britten had succeeded in doing.

I have reservations about Paul Curran’s production in Rome. A huge circus tent fills centre stage, which the actors themselves open and close and which can be lit from within to show giant cobwebs on its interior. White predominates, with further emphasis on minimalism. But it is my understanding that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an extravaganza. I willingly concede that the minimalism brings out the eternal child which was Benjamin Britten. But it also undermines the magic. In particular, there was no attempt to reproduce the forest, in which, following the librettists, more than three quarters of the opera takes place. And I agree with Lord Harewood that the forest is one of the opera’s main ‘characters’. That is a matter which Britten and Conlon attend to beautifully, but not Mr Curran and his designer, Kevin Knight.

Still, there were some fun touches in the staging too. Having the boys strip down to their underpants for the failed mock fight was a fun touch, but to make it work rightly, Mr Curran would have needed more say in the casting. While Demetrius (Phillip Addis) looked as though he was comfortable as a model for underpants, Lysander (Shawn Mathey) did not.

With long flowing blond hair and blithesome physique, Claudia Boyle looked quite perfect as the Queen of the Fairies. But Britten hands Titania some punishingly difficult coloratura to circumvent. It is hardly the composer’s fault if this lady has a strident voice. That in turn added some comedy to the show, but not of the kind I feel Britten would have approved of.

Peter Rose was a superb Bottom, both as actor and singer. His aria in the operetta within the opera in the final scene was met with prolonged applause. This, too, is where the production came into its own, the circus tent forming ‘back stage’ and the delightful country bumpkin actors entering and exiting through the huge swing curtains.

Special mention should be made of Puck (Michael Batten), whose acrobatics throughout were fun and outstandingly musical. Choreography elsewhere was rather dull and cliché-ridden. The only drawback to Mr Batten’s performance was his largely inaudible speaking voice, since it’s pretty well impossible to have a contact microphone attached when you’re half naked.

Jack Buckley