As Brexit looms, an English work flourishes in a Berlin opera house

GermanyGermany Britten, A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Soloists, Children’s Choir (chorus director: Christian Lindhorst) and Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin / Donald Runnicles (conductor). Deutsche Oper, Berlin, 29.1.2020. (MB)

Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (directed by Ted Huffman)
at the Deutsche Oper Berlin (c) Bettina Stöß

Director – Ted Huffman
Set designs – Marsha Ginsberg
Costumes – Annemarie Woods
Lighting – DM Wood
Choreography – Sam Pinkleton
Puck’s choreography – Ran Arthur Braun
Dramaturgy – Sebastian Hanusa
Spielleitung – Neil Barry Moss

Oberon – James Hall
Tytania – Siobhan Stagg
Puck – Jami Reid-Quarrell
Theseus – Padraic Rowan
Hippolyta – Davia Bouley
Lysander – Gideon Poppe
Demetrius – Samuel Dale Johnson
Hermia – Karis Tucker
Helena – Jeanine De Bique
Bottom – James Platt
Quince – Timothy Newton
Flute – Michael Kim
Snug – Patrick Guetti
Snout – Matthew Peña
Starveling – Matthew Cossack
Cobweb – Markus Kinch
Peaseblossom – Lora Violetta Haberstock
Mustardseed – Selina Isi
Moth – Chiara Annabelle Feldmann

For my final review – unless, which seems unlikely, I manage to write up this evening’s concert before midnight – written as a European citizen, it is perhaps fitting to be writing of an English opera, performed by a German company, conducted by a Scotsman. Given the circumstances, I hope I shall be forgiven if it does not find me at my most inspired, should such a condition even exist. Hand on heart, Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is not an opera I can bring myself to care for greatly, although – perhaps there is a lesson, or at least an irony, here too – the Berlin audience reacted enthusiastically.

Shakespeare is a dramatist whom composers, at least opera composers, confront at their peril. However clichéd it may be to say this, there is so much music in his verse that setting it can seem superfluous. This is not a rule; there are no such rules. However, I cannot see, or rather hear, what is gained in this case, other than an undeniable creepiness to score and elements of the dramaturgy, which therefore does not seem an unreasonable place for a performance to take as its point of departure. In that, as in everything else, Donald Runnicles’s leadership of the excellent Deutsche Oper Orchestra and Children’s Choir and a fine group of soloists proved just the ticket. Rarely if ever have I heard those recurring slithering glissandi and the weird balances of instrumentation and of instrumentation-vis-à-vis-harmony sound quite so ambiguous, even callous in their indifference to the affairs of mere mortals. This was fairyland music properly unsentimentalised. Moreover, Runnicles communicated the constructivist aspects of Britten’s writing more powerfully than any conductor I can recall. Unsurprisingly, the closer it sounded to The Turn of the Screw, the more interesting the score became. There is only so much anyone can do about the general thinness of writing and a tendency, constructivism notwithstanding, towards diffuse formlessness; insofar as anyone can, Runnicles certainly did. Colour, however, came first and foremost. Those silvery slivers of orchestral moonlight cast, in a fine dramatic paradox, as much shadow as anything else.

The children’s choir had evidently been very well prepared by Christian Lindhorst. Indeed, I had to remind myself afterwards that most of its members would have been singing in a foreign language. A mixed cast included many Anglophone singers, but those who were not, at least in terms of mother tongue, could again hardly be distinguished from those who were. (Singing and musical performance more generally are, of course, international businesses in which British artists have been enabled to flourish by membership of the European Union; goodness knows what will happen next year.) It seems invidious to single out particular performances when all impressed and contributed to a whole that was unquestionably greater than the sum of its parts. I shall limit myself to noting vocal portrayals that, for whatever reason, particularly caught my ear. From James Hall came a warm yet, in the best way, piercing Oberon, channelling Alfred Deller’s memory through something more than imitation; he was well matched by Siobhan Stagg’s spirited, knowing (at least until she was not!) Tytania. Gideon Poppe and Samuel Dale Johnson offered an excellent rutting pair of impetuous youths, well matched and contrasting with their lovers, Karis Tucker and Jeanine De Bique. James Platt’s bluffly comic Bottom led a characterful troupe of rustics.

Ted Huffman’s production gave the impression of good ideas that might fruitfully have been taken further, while shining a clear path through the basic narrative. No one would have stood in any doubt as to who was who, nor as to what was taking place: more, after all, than can often be said in opera staging. I presume the mid-twentieth-century setting – 1940s? – was intended to suggest the period of writing or at least Britten’s life in some respect. It was not, however, immediately clear why we should not then have been closer to 1960. Military uniforms and a suggestion – or was that just me? – of a battlefield as all slept in the forest may have alluded to wartime; if so, without something more, I was rather at a loss as to why and with what consequences. In a programme interview, Huffman referred to Oberon and Tytania fighting over the Indian boy as being akin to the status of Britten and Peter Pears as a childless couple. Once more, if so, nothing more was made of it – and I should hardly have thought of that without reading. Lines delivered in somewhat exaggerated fashion by Jami Reid-Quarrell, Puck was likewise intended, I learned, to represent an outsider. Fair enough, although surely that comes with the territory. There was, however, no doubting Reid-Quarrell’s agility, nor the skill of Ran Arthur Braun’s choreography for him. Quite why Theseus, in a fine vocal and stage display by Padraic Rowan, was drunk, I am afraid I have no idea, but the use of giant puppets for Pyramus and Thisby was charming.

What did I miss? Christopher Alden’s superlative ENO production, far and away the best I have seen, went for the pederastic jugular. Would that more would grasp that thorny nettle with such dramatic verve – be it in this or any other Britten opera. Perhaps, though, I was missing the point. With that, I should probably sign off. See you on the other side, lost in a far darker wood than this, with blue passports, yet nothing in the way of fairyland magic and no ‘break of day’ for at least a couple of decades. If we are lucky.

Mark Berry

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