A Midsummer Night’s Dream, English Touring Opera, Sadler’s Wells, London, March 2010

Jonathan Peter Kenny as Oberon and Gillian Ramm as Tytania, photo by Richard Hubert Smith

The right composer for an opera on Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is surely Benjamin Britten, and he doesn’t disappoint. He created this work in 1960, having been well seasoned by the dramatic ambiguity of Peter Grimes, and the discomforting theatre of The Turn of the Screw. The first of these distils the opera from a collection of poems, and the second from a novel, but this one from Shakespeare must inevitably involve cutting the dialogue, and the main cut is at the beginning. Shakespeare starts his play in practical scenes at court, whereas Britten takes us straight into the mysterious world of the supernatural. His music is wonderfully evocative of that world, yet with simpler folk melodies for the rustics. It is deceptively simple, played by a relatively small orchestra, but a magical atmosphere is created, and this production by James Conway serves it very well indeed. The sets and costumes by Joanna Parker, with subtle lighting designs by Aideen Malone, are excellent.

Michael Rosewell conducted well, producing lovely sounds from the orchestra and keeping the singers in phase. They all sang with sensitivity, and Gillian Ramm as Tytania, and Laura Mitchell as Helena both did well. The part of Oberon was originally created for Alfred Deller, who could no longer manage the higher register, and it’s a difficult role for a counter-tenor. Here we had Jonathan Peter Kenny, who produced an attractive sound but was underpowered and lacked clarity in his diction — that was unfortunate since there were no surtitles in this production. By contrast, Puck’s Sprechstimme was colourfully done and well performed.

Gillian Ramm as Tytania and Andrew Slater as Bottom, photo by Richard Hubert Smith

While much of the music and action is on a rather ethereal level, an excellent contrast was created in this production by the interaction between Tytania and Bottom as a priapic ass. This was no idle attraction on her part, but a full-blooded sexual union, amusingly portrayed as Bottom falls asleep after the climax. If you don’t know Britten’s Dream, it’s worth seeing on stage rather than simply listening to, and this is a fine production to experience.

After London it will tour to the following venues: 20th March, Exeter Northcott Theatre; 24th March, Hall for Cornwall, Truro; 31st March, Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield; 10th April, The Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham; 17th April, Buxton Opera House; 24th April, Grand Opera House Belfast; 29th April, The Hawth, Crawley; 8th May, Snape Maltings Concert Hall; 15th May, Warwick Arts Centre; 22nd May, Perth Festival, Perth Theatre; 29th May, Cambridge Arts Theatre.

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