Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

The Met’s ‘Le Nozze di Figaro’ a happy marriage of ensemble singing and acting

The cast of supporting roles was especially strong in the company’s new production of Mozart’s matchless masterpiece

Syracuse Opera’s ‘Die Fledermaus’ bubbles over with fun, laughter and irresistible music

The company uncorks its 40th Anniversary season with a visually and musically satisfying production of Johann Strauss Jr.’s farcical operetta

Capriccio at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Although performances of Richard Strauss’s last opera Capriccio have increased in recent time, Lyric Opera of Chicago has not experienced the “Konversationsstück für Musik” during the past twenty odd years.

Anna Netrebko, now a dramatic soprano, shines in the Met’s dark and murky ‘Macbeth’

The former lyric soprano holds up well — and survives the intrusive close-up camerawork of the ‘Live in HD’ transmission

Arizona Opera Presents First Mariachi Opera

Houston Grand Opera commissioned Cruzar la Cara de la Luna from composer José “Pepe” Martínez, music director of Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, who wrote the text together with Broadway and opera director Leonard Foglia. The work had its world premier in 2010. Since then, it has traveled to several cities including Paris, Chicago, and San Diego.

Plácido Domingo: I due Foscari, London

“Why should I go to hear Plácido Domingo” someone said when Verdi’s I due Foscari was announced by the Royal Opera House. There are very good reasons for doing so.

Philip Glass’s The Trial

Music Theatre Wales presented the world premiere of Philip Glass’s The Trial (Kafka) last night at the Linbury, Royal Opera House. Music Theatre Wales started doing Glass in 1989. Their production of Glass’s In the Penal Colony in 2010 was such a success that Glass conceived The Trial specially for the company.

Joyce DiDonato: Alcina, Barbican, London

To say that the English Concert’s performance of Handel’s Alcina at the Barbican on 10 October 2014 was hotly anticipated would be an understatement. Sold out for weeks, the performance capitalised on the draw of its two principals Joyce DiDonato and Alice Coote and generated the sort of buzz which the work did at its premiere.

A New Don Giovanni and Anniversary at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago opened its sixtieth anniversary season with a new production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni directed by Artistic Director of the Goodman Theater, Robert Falls.

Grande messe des morts, LSO

It was a little over two years ago that I heard Sir Colin Davis conduct the Berlioz Requiem in St Paul’s Cathedral; it was the last time I heard — or indeed saw — him conduct his beloved and loving London Symphony Orchestra.

Guillaume Tell, Welsh National Opera

Part of their Liberty or Death season along with Rossini’s Mose in Egitto and Bizet’s Carmen, Welsh National Opera performed David Pountney’s new production of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell (seen 4 October 2014).

Mose in Egitto, Welsh National Opera

Welsh National Opera’s production of Rossini’s Mose in Egitto was the second of two Rossini operas (the other is Guillaume Tell) performed in tandem for their autumn tour.

L’incoronazione di Poppea, Barbican Hall

In Monteverdi’s first Venetian opera, Il Ritorno d’Ulisse (1641), Penelope’s patient devotion as she waits for the return of her beloved Ulysses culminates in the triumph of love and faithfulness; in contrast, in L’incoronazione di Poppea it is the eponymous Queen’s lust, passion and ambition that prevail.

Rameau’s Les Paladins, Wigmore Hall

After the triumphs of love, the surprises: Les Paladins, under their director Jérôme Correas, and soprano Sandrine Piau are following their tour of material from their 2011 CD, ‘Le Triomphe de L’amour’, with a new amatory arrangement.

Puccini : The Girl of the Golden West, ENO London

At the ENO, Puccini's La fanciulla del West becomes The Girl of the Golden West. Hearing this opera in English instead of Italian has its advantages, While we can still hear the exotic, Italianate Madama Butterfly fantasies in the orchestra, in English, we're closer to the original pot-boiler melodrama. Madama Biutterfly is premier cru: The Girl of the Golden West veers closer, at times, to hokum. The new ENO production gets round the implausibility of the plot by engaging with its natural innocence.

Anna Caterina Antonacci, Wigmore Hall, London

Presenting a well-structured and characterful programme, Italian soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci demonstrated her prowess in both soprano and mezzo repertoire in this Wigmore Hall recital, performing European works from the early years of the twentieth century. Assuredly accompanied by her regular pianist Donald Sulzen, Antonacci was self-composed and calm of manner, but also evinced a warmly engaging stage presence throughout.

Il barbiere di Siviglia, Royal Opera

Bold, bright and brash, Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s Il barbiere di Siviglia tells its story clearly in complementary primary colours.

Gluck and Bertoni at Bampton

Bampton Classical Opera’s 2014 double bill neatly balanced drollery and gravity. Rectifying the apparent prevailing indifference to the 300th centenary of Christoph Willibald Gluck birth, Bampton offered a sharp, witty production of the composer’s Il Parnaso confuso, pairing this ‘festa teatrale’ with Ferdinando Bertoni’s more sombre Orfeo.

Purcell: A Retrospective

Harry Christophers and The Sixteen Choir and Orchestra launched the Wigmore Hall’s two-year series, ‘Purcell: A Retrospective’, in splendid style. Flexibility, buoyancy and transparency were the watchwords.

Mahler: Symphony no.3 — Prom 73

It would be unfair, but one could summarise this concert with the words, ‘Senator, you’re no Leonard Bernstein.’

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Iestyn Davies as Oberon and Anna Christy as Tytania [Photo by Alastair Muir courtesy of English National Opera]
23 May 2011

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ENO

On my travels, I often hear occasional opera-goers complain about having wasted time and money on a production that, on the night, bears no relation to their expectations.

Benjamin Britten: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Oberon: Iestyn Davies (sung by William Towers due to Davies’s indisposition); Tytania: Anna Christy; Theseus: Paul Whelan; Puck: Jamie Manton; Hippolyta: Catherine Young; Lysander: Allan Clayton; Demetrius: Benedict Nelson; Hermia: Tamara Gura; Helena: Kate Valentine; Bottom: Willard White; Quince: Jonathan Veira; Flute: Michael Colvin; Snug: Graham Danby; Snout: Peter van Hulle; Starveling: Simon Butteriss. Orchestra of the English National Opera. Conductor: Leo Hussain. Director: Christopher Alden. Set designer: Charles Edwards. Costume designer: Sue Wilmington. Lighting designer: Adam Silverman. Staff Directors: Elaine Tyler Hall, Rob Kearley. English National Opera, London Coliseum, May 2011.

Above: Iestyn Davies as Oberon and Anna Christy as Tytania

All photos by Alastair Muir courtesy of English National Opera

 

From ENO’s printed brochure this season it would appear that one director, Christopher Alden, helpfully worked out his Midsummer Night’s Dream concept far enough in advance to enable ENO’s marketing team to outline it in advance, in the hope of ensuring that the terminally conservative did not part with money they would later wish they hadn’t. This Dream, we were told, would be transplanted to ‘the hormonal hothouse of a 1960s school’.

I love seeing opera re-imagined well. Richard Jones’s comprehensive rethink of Pagliacci for the same company a couple of years ago was a superlative example of the genre, with every detail worked into a comprehensive theatrical whole. Alden’s school setting was a promising viewpoint, given Britten’s preoccupation with the theme of innocence corrupted, his extensive writing for treble chorus and soloists, an undercurrent of power games and spite, and a plot involving young couples falling in and out of lust/love with one another. And such is the eerie charm of the music that it should be robust enough to survive removal from anything remotely resembling an enchanted wood. In intelligent hands, it really ought to work.

Alden’s vision is that of a man attempting to exorcise childhood demons. The shadows of his past unfold with clarity: a schoolmaster once exerted a hold over him to the point that he became emotionally dependent on that relationship. Cast aside at puberty in favour of a younger and fresher favourite, the rejected victim reached adulthood mired in confusion. Now, on the eve of his wedding, these events flash through his mind in a dream as he attempts to make sense of their legacy. In the midst of a company of almost zombified fellow pupils, he imagines himself as an adolescent Puck (Jamie Manton), rejected by Latin-master Oberon in favour of the Indian Boy but unable to escape his power.

So far, so conceptually complete, and the power with which dark thoughts can haunt the subconscious was vividly portrayed from the moment one entered the auditorium, as there was no curtain and the dark grey school-exterior set was oppressively huge (full stage height, and wide enough to breach the proscenium at one side). The malevolent undercurrent of much of the music was brilliantly brought into focus. And herein lay one of the staging’s massive problems — it concentrated on the opera’s dark recesses at the expense of every other plot strand, and it became difficult to recognise as A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Tytania, here the music-mistress, was complicit in Oberon’s abuse of power, but why? The best analogy I can think of is a ‘Turn of the Screw’ in which there had never been any sexual thrall exerted by Quint over Miss Jessel. This Tytania was robotic in her movements and almost sexless, an idea which works in the context of the production (the unconscious thoughts of a man whose first sexual experiences were homosexual, now being involved with a woman and not quite knowing how to relate to her) but goes quite against the strong and voluptuous melismatic vocal lines of Britten’s writing for her. For Bottom she took her blouse off at least, but it remained a curiously asexual seduction.

ENO-MND-01.gifScene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Bottom, too, removed his shirt when ‘translated’ — the choreography during those few moments suggested that he was turning into a powerful, sexually voracious animal — but there was no further visual suggestion that he had been transformed into an object of ridicule (at 64, Willard White remains a fine figure of a man) never mind an ass. What a waste of all the donkey-jokes in both the text and the music. It was moments like this that brought home the arrogance of a production which assumes that its audience will be familiar with the piece, or at least its source, in advance; it must have been baffling to the first-time viewer.

The other massive issue I had was the lazy assumption that practical non-sequiturs — for example the presence of two girls (Helena and Hermia) in a school otherwise populated entirely by boys — could be explained away by it all being a dream. Later, the dreamer turned out to be Theseus (on the eve of his marriage to Hippolyta) and it thus became perfectly credible that friends he was due to see the next day might pop up abstractly in his dream alongside its main plotline, but this revelation wasn’t really made until Act 3, by which time a number of audience members had already given up and left. In both the opera and Shakespeare’s original, the three strands of the cast — fairies, Athenians and rustics — are a balanced, structural feature, keeping the action fresh by alternating the groups scene by scene, while exploring the dramatic possibilities of members of different groups coming into contact with one another. Here, the sole theme was Theseus’s projection of his own thoughts into the ‘fairy’ world, with the four lovers a sideline and the rustics an afterthought. The lovers and rustics were thus neglected directorially, the former lacking the opportunity for passion (in both the loving and argumentative sense) and the latter for light relief and comedy.

ENO-MND-04.gifWillard White as Bottom and Anna Christy as Tytania

All of which brings me to the performers. It’s unfortunate when a principal is sick, especially on the opening night, and on this occasion it was Iestyn Davies who had to mime (owing to his understudy also being indisposed) to the voice of the saturnine William Towers, star of the Royal Opera/Linbury Studio Theatre production a couple of years ago, singing from one of the boxes. I trust Davies will be back to vocal health soon, but he could barely have had a more accomplished stand-in than Towers. Anna Christy’s sharply focused coloratura can be rather colourless but was thus ideal for the staging’s unalluring portrayal of Tytania. The four lovers — Kate Valentine, Tamara Gura, Allan Clayton and Benedict Nelson — were well-matched and would have been believable if only the production had allowed them to be.

Heading up the mechanicals, as I previously mentioned, was Willard White, a Bottom of great vocal beauty but absolutely no comic instinct. While it was gratifying to see the play-rehearsal scenes played straight rather than as unfunny and caricatured farce, the play itself was presented as shambolic and overtly lewd am-dram played for the odd belly-laugh (a drunken Snout, Peter van Hulle, swearing at his audience when invited to ‘curse again’). I longed for the comedy to be allowed to blossom for a few moments. We should not be, at this point, still inside the dream — even though very soon afterward, Alden has Puck reappearing among the players to reawaken Theseus’s memories.

Leo Hussain’s musical direction was to my mind faultless; instrumental lines emerged crisply from the texture when required, and tension always remained high. The boys’ chorus had clearly been directed to sing with a weighty, forward-projected sound and crisp diction; it was a powerful and sinister effect, and frankly put the adults to shame because most of the diction elsewhere was poor. The episode when the fairies entertain Bottom with nursery-tunes played on pipes and drums was malevolent and terrifying.

All in all, I found it musically brilliant and dramatically deeply frustrating. With two entire acts of the drama developed through the mind of one single dreamer, there were very few characters who were allowed to be important or interesting or to behave like human beings towards one another. Shakespeare’s text and Britten’s music are laden with disturbing themes ripe for exploration, but I wished with all my heart that Alden had not lost sight of the fact that they are also full of tenderness, wit, and beauty.

Ruth Elleson © 2011

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):