rvw: Lyric Brings Warmth of Midsummer to Chilly Autumn

If you've never been to the opera, this is a pretty good place to start.  Bathed in a green light, under a billowing canopy of blue, Lyric's current production of Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream is serenely sublime: like a fond retelling of a reenactment of a dream about a spirited romp in the woods.  Though Britten cut a majority of the text, the spirit of the play is kept intact--a rare successful opera adaptation of a Shakespeare play.

(all photos by Dan Rest)

The opera opens with an entrancing chorus of fairies--superbly sung by the Anima children's chorus--under an impossibly large sheet of blue, undulating as if some hybrid of wind and wave. The woods belong to the fairies; it is the mortals who intrude.

Enter the fairy king and queen, Oberon and Tytania.  Tytania saunters on stage surrounded by her entourage of fairies, while Oberon enters from stage up, flying down from the rafters on a suspended platform.  Both singers, countertenor David Daniels and soprano Anna Christy, had clear, agile voices.  Ms. Christy had more opportunity to show off but left me wishing Britten had written even more exciting queen-like coloratura passages.
Enter the lovers Lysander and Hermia, played by Shawn Mathey and Elizabeth DeShong respectively.  And in hot pursuit, Demetrius (Lucas Meachem).  And in hot pursuit of him, Helena, (Erin Wall).  The four voices were well matched in strength and ability, and managed to make Britten's angular melodies seem almost natural.  Almost.  But playing mortals, Britten gives them more conversational material, coming off as jagged recitative.
Enter the actors, the third group to get mixed up in this reverie.  With or without the ass-head, Peter Rose, as Bottom, bellows charismatic buffoonery and nearly steals the show.  The rest of the actors work seamlessly together as they play their roles and as they play the roles their roles are playing.  
And behind it all, Britten's music, with its perplexing blend of timbres, modalities, and modest dissonance.  Like the cast, no single moment stands out (though some more than others); you may not take away a hummable tune, but neither will you be bored.  The result is more of a play set to music than a traditional opera.  If you're used to Verdi, it may seem like a whole other art form, but if you're more of a theater-goer and know Shakespeare's original, you will find it strangely familiar.  [Though you might question some of Britten's vocal rhythms, which seem to sometimes contradict the natural cadence of the words.]  
And funny.  I didn't laugh out loud in the first two acts, though there were many around me who guffawed as the 3 stooges antics of the actors.  But in the third act, after intermission, the actors' play had the audience rolling in the floor laughing.  Even me.
The opera has it all: love, magic, fairies, ass-heads, humor, wit, and charming music.  And nobody dies.  
Strongest production of the year so far: Greatly Recommended

Filed under: lyric, opera, review

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