Garsington Opera’s new A Midsummer Night’s Dream, though atmospheric, lacks an overall concept

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Garsington Opera 2024 [3] – Britten, A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Soloists, Garsington Opera Youth Company, Philharmonia Orchestra / Douglas Boyd (conductor). Garsington Opera at Wormsley, 21.6.2024. (CR)

Lucy-Crowe (Tytania) and Richard Burkhard (Bottom) © Craig Fuller

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – this performance happily falling on the summer solstice – naturally draws the imagination away from the city to the woods and forests which lie apart, especially in Britten’s operatic version of Shakespeare’s play which cuts most of the action at the Athenian court of Theseus and Hippolyta. Garsington Opera’s auditorium in the midst of the Wormsley Estate in the Chilterns is well placed to exploit that atmosphere with its transparent side walls already offering a view to the gardens and trees outside, so that the boundaries between closed-in theatre and the natural world beyond are already quite porous (and the stagings of various other operas there in the past have made use of that fact very effectively in the past).

For her new production (first seen at Santa Fe Opera in 2021), Netia Jones goes a step further in that, for Act I, the auditorium is opened at the back of the stage to show the trees outside; for the set itself, it as though nature is fighting back and claiming its own place again instead of that of an artificial, manmade, opera house, as a tree has sprouted through the sloping stage floor, spearing a grand piano in the process. Just as Britten’s music disclaims just about every possible grandiloquent, Romantic Wagnerian gesture, so the set shows nature smothering what man has made around it, rather than Hunding’s hut in Die Walküre being built around and dominating an ash tree, which is further subdued with the sword thrust into it. For Acts II and III the set is closed in and the transparent or open sides shuttered off to create a dark, shadowy environment; (uncredited) video projections on a disc show animals and creepy crawlies thriving in nature, before giving way to a full moon, with all the connotations that has in literature, art, and legend. The sense of the strange and sinister is evocatively conjured by having the children’s chorus of fairies clad in the black costumes of various different creatures, popping up unexpectedly from under the stage or behind the tree, and reclaiming the idea of fairies as somewhat dubious beings rather than charmingly glittering will-o’-the-wisps.

Iestyn Davies (Oberon) © Julian Guidera

Other aspects of the staging are visually arresting and potentially pregnant with meaning – a smaller version of the sloping floor, spherical model, and suspended disc of the main set are tellingly assembled for Pyramus and Thisbe, the play within the play; the two pairs of conflicted lovers at the centre of the work are dressed up as schoolchildren, presumably a comment upon the volatile, wayward lessons in love they receive during its course; the rude mechanicals are attired in roughly the style of the 1920s to ‘30s, calling to mind something of a Laurel and Hardy slapstick humour as a result; and the couch that is present on the stage much of the time just possibly alludes to a Freudian interpretation of the dream-like fantasy of the whole play’s farrago.

Less clear is why Theseus and Hippolyta’s marriage is twice shown as surreally doomed from the start (before they even properly appear as singing characters) when he comes on drunk and she draws a huge gauze-like dress behind her from a much larger roll of ready-made material, which Puck cuts off to the desired length. However atmospheric as it all undoubtedly is, it is not apparent that a few felicitous but dramatically inert ideas exactly add up to an overall concept or interpretation of the work that can be latched on to. That lack perhaps explains the misinterpretation and miscasting of the spoken role of Puck here.

Although Jerone Marsh-Reid jumps out of the tree in a lime-coloured suit, like an impish green man, and is unquestionably athletic, the choreography of his cavorting on stage is too muscular and grounded for the agile sprite of Shakespeare’s conception, and Marsh-Reid tends to bellow the lines rather than declaim them with artful nuance.

Vocally the performance is subtly and idiomatically characterised on the whole, above all in Iestyn Davies and Lucy Crowe’s otherworldly accounts of the fairy king and queen, Oberon icily exact and calculating, Tytania whimsical and flighty in her unsettling coloratura, rather than flashily bright. Compared with them, the human lovers all aptly embody passion and gusto in their various amorous and jealous ventures, James Geidt particularly impressive for his bold, urgent performance as Demetrius, stepping in to replace James Newby. Nicholas Crawley and Christine Byrne (the latter also a stand-in, for Christine Rice) exude a certain aristocratic reserve and steadiness as Theseus and Hippolyta, while the rude mechanicals receive affectionately earthy interpretations from all concerned, guided in spirit (if not in the play) by Richard Burkhard’s irrepressible Bottom, and John Savournin also deserves a mention for the dance turn he takes on stage.

Douglas Boyd oversees a musically taut performance from the pit, with the selected members of the Philharmonia Orchestra for Britten’s chamber scoring, sustaining as much tension and presence as the often-sparse textures allow. The Garsington Opera Youth Company chorus apparently comprise young local singers who have not had the benefit of professional musical training, but that was hardly evident from their keen, spirited contributions in the jaunty numbers for them.

Curtis Rogers

Oberon – Iestyn Davies
Tytania – Lucy Crowe
Puck – Jerone Marsh-Reid
Lysander – Caspar Singh
Demetrius – James Geidt
Hermia – Stephanie Wake-Edwards
Helena – Camilla Harris
Theseus – Nicholas Crawley
Hippolyta – Christine Byrne
Quince – John Savournin
Bottom – Richard Burkhard
Flute – James Way
Snug – Frazer Scott
Starveling – Geoffrey Dolton
Snout – Adam Sullivan

Director and Designer – Netia Jones
Lighting designer – D. M. Wood
Choreographer – Rebecca Meltzer
Fight director – Christian Sordelet

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