What better music to hear in bitter midwinter than the Benjamin Britten/Peter Pears’ opera adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Opera Philadelphia brings the US premiere of Robert Carsen’s famed 1991 production. Britten’s score as squirrelly as ever, but reined in with interpretive clarity by conductor Corrado Rovaris.
Composed in 1960 and immediate hit, Carsen’s surrealistic reimaging of Midsummer was first presented Aix-en-Provence, France with Michael Levine’s modernist vision of Shakespeare’s enchanted Arden turned first into an enormous green bed with a silvery moon hovering against a cobalt sky. A seductive playground for Puck to be as puckish as ever dashing flouncing around heating up everyone’s passions & arias with screwball mischief.
Oberon and Tytania, King and Queen of the forest faires are circling and arguing over an infant as the regimen of young chorister attendants, mustached and in green tailcoats swarm over the pillows and sing Shakespeare’s verse.
Oberon (countertenor Tim Mead) in a billowy green robe with matching hair and Tytania) Anna Christy fight over their child. Then the magical night is set in motion as the forest sprites (Philadelphia Boy Choir ~Children chorus) in green tailcoats, scurry around in regimental configurations on the bed, in resplendent voices.
Oberon summons Puck to pluck the cupid’s flower and pair lovers up to his bidding. But Puck scrambles the spells and the lovers are smitten by the wrong lover. Actor Miltos Yerolemou plays Puck with maniacal charm, as he waves the aphrodisiac lily around and causes lusty mayhem on Helena (Georgia Jarman), Lysander (Brenton Ryan), Hermia (Siena Licht Miller) and Demetrius (Johnathan McCullough) and causes Tytania to be enamored by a donkey.
Meanwhile, the Theatricals workers are staging a play about lovers being kept apart by a big wall among other plot devices, being kept apart by a wall (Shakespeare was often prophetic). Puck though turns the star Bottom (Matthew Rose) into a mule, or is it an ass? who cares, Tytania is under Puck’s wayward spell in the night falls in love with. Rose and Christy are vocally intoxicating in their bedroom romp.
The Rustic theater troupe puts on the play within the play and end up in old-timey skivvies in the same frame as the Royals are decked out in dazzling silver and gold organza palace couture that looks out of MGM movie studio circa 1939.
The 2nd Act curtain comes up on the four lover leads and Puck on three beds that hover in midair of the Academy of Music proscenium, against the cobalt sky the audience burst into applause.
Britten famously rushed to compose Midsummer, with his lover Peter Pears the librettist, all but six lines, are directly from Shakespeare’s text- some summarily disabused- but all serviceable for their purposes to premiere it at their opera festival.
Rovaris lit Britten’s intricate, modernist orchestra score and it has a sketchy, and even ponderous progressions and mise-en-scene. But, chunks of it, especially for the choristers and reflective arias of Oberon, Helen, Bottom, and a few others intoxicates. And there are equally magical orchestral moments, the atmospheric chimera of the strings. Among the outstanding principal players, 1st violin, harp, cello, harpsichord, horn.
The tight orchestra-libretto dynamic of Britten’s Billy Budd, for instance, is not achieved in Midsummer, but there are brilliant passages throughout. Pears’ libretto has some thorny passages, but many like the rapid-fire singspiel of the rehearsals of the play within the play by ‘the Rustics’ is virtuosic. Those hapless theatricals- Matthew Rose (Bottom), Miles Mykkanen (Flute), Brent Michael Smith (Quince), Patric Guetti (Snug)- make the most of it.
Emmanuelle Bastet was the revival director for Opera Philadelphia’s production and it is a physical comic soufflé, with the more engaging moments in the quieter scenes- Oberon’s regal pacing over the stage, for instance- the more manic moments, in this performance, scattered scene focus. In the first act, the blocking mayhem also lent itself to vocal projection problems. The Boy Choir swarms around with charming precision, but Matthew Bourne’s choreography is overdone with the principals, even anemic at key points, though Yerolemou had wonderful physical comedy moments and wowed the crowd when he dove off the edge of the stage into the first balcony box.
Baritone Johnathan McCullough and soprano Georgia Jarman play broad comedy, lots of mugging and pratfalls. Jarman goes from cloying stalker to sultry seductress, without letting the comedy get in the way of her stellar vocal prowess. Mezzo-soprano Siena Licht Miller’s Hermia and tenor Brenton Ryan dial it back and slay with charm if some erratic vocal moments. Bass-baritone Evan Hughs’ Theseus and mezzo Allyson McHardy’s Hippolyta deliver regally passionate vocal chemistry in the final scene.