Music: Benjamin Britten
Libretto: Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears
Director: Martin Duncan
Reviewer: Helen Jones
Opera North are celebrating the 100th birthday of Benjamin Britten with this autumn’s tour, by producing three of his better known operas. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is Britten’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s original comedy.
Oberon, the King of the Fairies, and Tytania, the Queen of the Fairies, have fallen out over Tytania’s refusal to allow her husband to have a human child that she cares for. He plans his revenge by getting his minion Puck to gather a flower which when the juice is dripped onto the eyes causes the the person to fall in love with the first creature they see. Before he can use it on Tytania he is disturbed by two couples travelling through the forest. Lysander and Hermia are running away from Athens to escape Hermia’s marriage to Demetrius. Demetrius is following them, declaring his love for Hermia, but he is being persuade by Helena who is in love with Demetrius. Oberon orders Puck to enchant Demetrius so that he falls in love with Helena but as often happens, things do not go quite as planned. Oberon then enchants Tytania and she falls in love with local weaver Bottom, whom Puck has transformed into an ass. Oberon steals the child away from Tytania then releases her from the enchantment and they are reconciled. He also puts right the mix up with the Athenian couples and happiness is restored.
This production is set on a stark white set, populated by vertical columns of translucent material and clear balloons. Johan Engel’s design allows for a magical feeling but never conveys the atmosphere of the woods in which the action takes place. Ashley Martin-Davis has continues the monochromatic theme with the fairies mostly being dressed in white or silver. Unfortunately Oberon’s scale mail top reflects the light so effectively that it can be painful sitting in the audience.
Jeni Bern’s Tytania is in fine voice but never conveys a character it is possible to empathise with, while James Laing is outclassed by the majority of other rôles. Britten’s music is never the easiest but the tenor rôle of Oberon is not one which comes over well. The most well developed rôle is Puck and Daniel Abelson makes it his own, with a very effective physical portrayal. The fairy chorus is made up of children and are excellent both individually and as a group.
Benjamin Britten’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is more about his own concerns about sex and society than a retelling of the Elizabethan original. Unfortunately in doing this he loses the humour from the first two acts and it is the humour which makes this story so appealing. Humour finally makes an appearance in act three and the relevant cast go to town on the story of Pyramus and Thisby. But without the humour in the early parts, Britten’s opera can never be a great version of one of the classics.