United States Britten, A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of Opera Philadelphia / Corrado Rovaris (conductor), Academy of Music, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 10.2.2019. (BJ)
Director & Lighting designer – Robert Carsen
Revival Director – Emmanuelle Bastet
Choreographer – Matthew Bourne (revived by Shelby Williams)
Set & Costume designer – Michael Levine
Lighting design – Peter Van Praet (revived by Adrian Plaut)
Chorus master – Elizabeth Braden
Children’s Chorus master–Jeffrey Smith
Oberon – Tim Mead
Tytania – Anna Christy
Puck – Miltos Yerolemou
Helena – Georgia Jarman
Hermia – Siena Licht Miller
Lysander – Brenton Ryan
Demetrius – Johnathan McCullough
Theseus – Evan Hughes
Hippolyta – Allyson McHardy
Bottom – Matthew Rose
Flute – Miles Mykkanen
Quince – Brent Michael Smith
Snug – Patrick Guetti
Snout – George Somerville
Cobweb – Jack Cellucci
Peaseblossom – Timothy O’Connor
Mustardseed – Evan Schaffer
Moth – Payton Owens
It would be foolhardy to accuse anything the Bard of Avon wrote more than four hundred years ago of lacking contemporary relevance for us now in the 21st century. To the amusement of the audience at this post-U.S.-government-shutdown performance of Britten’s great Shakespearian opera, the play-within-a-play near the end included the prominent impersonation of that contentious item, a Wall. Hilariously realized in this production, it was well worth a spot of delighted laughter and applause, and it was just one among a goodly number of jokes in the work and its realization, several of them created by Miltos Yerolemou’s suitably seditious Puck.
Casting the operatic A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a tall order to start with. You need a team of youthful singer-dancers for Shakespeare’s fairies, and two adult singers — one of them a countertenor — to play their king and queen; another dozen grown-ups to represent both the polished Athenian nobles of the plot and the ‘rude mechanicals’ who so gauchely yet endearingly try to entertain them; and a fleet-footed actor to play Puck, the mischievous imp whose carelessness sets the story on its accident-prone course.
Originally staged by Festival d’Aix-en–Provence and Opéra National de Lyon, the first United States presentation of Robert Carsen’s widely traveled and equally widely celebrated quarter-century-old production, which I was myself encountering for the first time, delivered generously on all these requisites. Restaged here by Carsen’s assistant Emmanuelle Bastet, it profited from the contributions of a uniformly excellent array of solo voices, notably featuring those of countertenor Tim Mead and soprano Anna Christy in the leading fairy roles. Corrado Rovaris led a well-paced and lucid account of the score; I cannot remember ever hearing the words of a text so clearly in any operatic performance, and Britten’s skillful orchestration must share the credit for this with the maestro’s impeccably balanced textures. Orchestrally, chorally, and choreographically, too, all was in order.
The visual aspect of the production was certainly effective, but to my mind rather less comprehensively so. A colleague of mine already acquainted with it had described it to me as ‘magical’, and by Carsen’s own account, his intention was ‘to create as magical a production as we could, without [my italics] resorting to creating a so-called real fake forest on stage, with real fake trees and real fake foliage.’ In common with the approaches of many contemporary directors, his desire to make his forest metaphorical rather than physically realistic is understandable, but I would have been happier if he had explained why, which is what I always want to know about such directorial decisions. And in the present case I cannot refrain from comparing the often amusing and sufficiently clean but somewhat prosaic look of Michael Levine’s sets with the effect of the ravishing stage design and lighting that John Bury brought to his 1981 Glyndebourne production of the work. Now that was truly magical, and the way we saw the trees gradually materialize out of the mist keeps its place in my mind, nearly forty years later, as one of the three or four most vivid visual memories I cherish from more than half a century of opera-going.
Ah, well — I suppose we can’t expect every visit to the theater to reward us with an experience of pure, flawless magic. What this production gave us, without quite scaling the ultimate heights of inspiration, was a thoughtful and arresting realization of Shakespeare’s and Britten’s enchanting and powerfully humanistic masterpiece.