02 Jan 2005

Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream at De Munt, Brussels

© Johan Jacobs De Munt's Christmas production plays into high summer and it is magnificent to behold. Scottish director David McVicar is somewhat of a cult director in Antwerp and Brussels. In Antwerp he directed a fine Idomeneo and an...

© Johan Jacobs

De Munt's Christmas production plays into high summer and it is magnificent to behold. Scottish director David McVicar is somewhat of a cult director in Antwerp and Brussels. In Antwerp he directed a fine Idomeneo and an unforgettable Contes d'Hoffmann (later reworked for Salzburg), fully respecting the original intentions while in Brussels he did a spectacular and updated Agrippina and a dark and brooding Don Giovanni. Though he is now one of the happy few directors wanted all over the world he nevertheless often returns to this country. McVicar has one overriding obsession: he wants to tell a good story and he wants to tell it clearly. He doesn't like humbug and clearly speaks out when he sees it. Of Robert Wilson's Aida (also premièred in De Munt and later given at Covent Garden) he says: " "they are constructing something on the scene while a sound track of Aida is running" ; a pronouncement that more or less corroborates with the opinion of the Aida (Norma Fantini) who called it "Aida in Tokyo".

Well, McVicar delivered the goodies. This was Midsummer Night's Dream as Shakespeare probably would have loved to see it and never saw it as the technical means and the money at his disposal were infinitely smaller. In an interview after the performance I read that the play is performed on a giant attic of a big English country house and that came somewhat as a surprise to me. The lightning (Paule Constable) and the scenery were so ingenious (Rae Smith) that I took it for a wood, be it one without too many leaves. And with the rising costs of garbage collection nowadays, one often finds seats and all kinds of props in our few woods. The whole looked rich and sumptuous and gave a wonderful idea of a fairy tale: somewhat like Disney with style. So did the costumes of the many performers (Smith too) and it was a joy to see fairies instead of giant bees or spiders or the nowadays popular cliché of clowns.

McVicar likes his singers to think with him and to have the same attitude towards telling a clear story though he had some stiff demands to made upon the cast (he likes to meddle with casting). Puck (David Greeves) didn't only have to sing and to act but to perform some difficult acrobatics high in the sky as well. Oberon can lengthen and shorten his height in the best fairy tale tradition and I admired Michael Chance who quietly and assuredly continued singing while his legs were lengthening with some 14 feet.

The big cast was lead by bass-baritone Laurent Naouri as Bottom. He doesn't like his wife to use her influence and I wish she would. It needn't end in a Sutherland-Bonynge or Freni-Ghiaurov blackmail but Naouri is a very fine singer whom I'd like to hear more in his native repertory where he could take over José van Dam's sceptre. He failed in his Met audition several years ago and I think the Met would do well to give him a second chance instead of only engaging Madame Naouri-Dessay. As he studied at the Guildhall in London his voice freely rang out in the verses culled from the original play. Laura Claycomb was the sensuous Tytania though I think the part is somewhat low for her high coloratura soprano. Countertenor Michael Chance as Oberon didn't endear me to his kind of voice as his sounds were weak and unfocused. All other artist performed worthily. Special mention must be made of the youth choir of De Munt. Strengthened by a few other choirs they sang and acted their heart out and either McVicar worked wonders with them or otherwise they are all headed for a big career on the scene due to their innate talent. Ivor Bolton was the careful conductor of the splendid sounding orchestra.

And so we come to the main drawback in my eyes and especially my ears. Frankly, I don't think that Britten's score deserves such a splendid and costly production. By 1959 the composer was probably tired of criticism that he was old-fashioned, that only movie composers employed tonality and he tried to prove his detractors he too was a modern composer. 45 years later this only results in a far too heavy orchestration always dominated by the woodwinds, all kinds of drums, bells and timpani resulting in a lot of dissonance. The original play was reduced to one third but the original words were used in the libretto. Due to all the noise Shakespeare is in for a heavy drubbing. This reviewer who is a former teacher of English was not able to understand more than a few sentences from the female performers. The men as always could be understood somewhat better as they had a lot of sprechgesang but still spectators without the ability to read either the Dutch or French surtitles wouldn't know what the fuzz on the scene was all about. Britten never was a prolific tune-smith ("Young man, don't you think I would have written some fine melodies if I had had Verdi's talents" he remarked in 69 when I was complaining of lack of melody in his works). Only at the beginning and end of each act that Britten allows himself some lyric utterances but for the rest it is often a trip through the desert.

Jan Neckers

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