English National Opera at the London Coliseum, May 21
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Few dreams are entirely good, and no staging that does justice to A Midsummer Night’s Dream—Shakespeare’s or Britten’s—is wholly without a sinister aspect. Christopher Alden’s new ENO production, however, is far more nightmare than dream, and does the opera as Britten conceived it no justice at all.
The single set (by Charles Edwards) is the corner of a grim, grey courtyard in a boys’ school, or perhaps the boys’ wing of a mixed one. Before the music starts, a man walks on and surveys it slowly, with horror, then slumps against a wall. During the overture, a boy in school uniform slumps next to him; this, we realize, is the man’s teenage self, and the building his old school. At the end of the overture, the boy speaks: ‘How now, spirits!’ He is Puck, and the source of the horror is Oberon, a chain-smoking schoolmaster who has cast off his former favourite, and is torturing Puck with his new preference for the Changeling Boy.
The fairies, of course, are schoolboys, trooping out in regimented fashion to sing for the music mistress Tytania; the mechanicals are school staff from outside the classrooms—caretakers, groundsmen, a PE teacher (costumes are by Sue Willmington). Oberon bullies the uptight Tytania, then gets Puck, sullen but subservient, to send her wild with a ‘herb’ inhaled via a spliff. At the end of Act 2, a woman in a white veil appears and the identity of the mysterious man is confirmed: this is Theseus, and he has to work through his past trauma before he can wed Hippolyta. Where the four lovers fit into all this I’m still not sure, but they provide the excuse for the production’s greatest visual effect: Puck parts them at the end of Act 2 with the help of a conflagration in the school corridors fierier than the average Götterdämmerung Immolation Scene.
Alden tells a compelling story, and I would like to see his take on The Turn of the Screw, Death in Venice, Billy Budd, even Grimes: in fact, virtually any Britten opera but this one. As it is, Alden’s Dream has a markedly different story to that of Shakespeare’s text (and indeed Britten’s music). This is not the kind of small tension between words heard and actions seen that can add a frisson or spark the audience’s imagination. Rather, a large proportion of the text just makes no sense at all; the reworking is too heavy a burden for the delicate Dream to bear. Moreover, its implications of paedophilia left a bad taste in the mouth. Some thought that Theseus (the tireless Paul Whelan)—and, by extension, Puck (Jamie Manton)—personified Britten in all this; for my money, something about the cock of the head in Iestyn Davies’s meticulously observed portrayal meant that Britten could not possibly be seen as anyone but the manipulative Oberon.
With everything viewed through the lens of Theseus/Puck’s grief, comedy was, unsurprisingly, scarce. We might have wanted to smile at Allan Clayton’s bookish (and excellently sung) Lysander wooing Tamara Gura’s velvet-toned Hermia by the school bins, but the sight of Puck crouched on a ledge behind them rocking with misery soon put paid to that. Even such a stage animal as Willard White didn’t shine when the ‘herb’ sent Bottom crazed and shirtless (but still with his own head) in pursuit of Tytania. Her music was short on sensuality, but in the context of this characterization that is probably not Anna Christy’s fault. Of the mechanicals, the robust tenor of Michael Colvin’s Flute stood out; but the end of his ‘dying’ peroration as Thisbe, usually the comic apex of the play, was turned into yet another uncomfortable moment as Puck glided onstage and sparked a return of the horror in Theseus’s face. Iestyn Davies had been ill on the first night, and William Towers had sung from a stage box while Davies acted; on the second night, Davies was back in beguiling voice. The other two lovers, Kate Valentine (Helena) and Benedict Nelson (Demetrius), acquitted themselves well, as did Jonathan Veira as Quince. As, too, did the orchestra, under Leo Hussain, though the fairy music could have had more of a glittery edge to it.
Yet I’m not sure that a good musical performance of this opera is unusual enough to balance out any of this production’s nastiness. Britten’s Dream is an exceptionally well-crafted opera, written to bring out the best in its performers; from colleges to Glyndebourne, I’ve never heard a bad performance. I had thought it foolproof. In fact, I still do. But Alden is no fool.