Monday 5 March 2012

A Midsummer Nights Dream - Guildhall School of Music and Drama

The Guildhall College of Music and Drama's new production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream was performed not in their own theatre but in the bigger and better equipped Barbican Theatre.  I was curious to see how the director, Martin Lloyd-Evans, and designer, Dicky Bird, had taken advantage of the facilities, and also how the young cast took to the opera which contains a significant number of roles whose ages tally to the students own.

We saw the performance on Saturday 3rd March, the second performance of the first cast; Lysander, Demetrius, Helena, Hermia, Theseus and Bottom were all double cast, though in the case of Bottom and Theseus the singers involved simply swapped roles.

The curtain (well the high tech safety curtain) rose on a disused hospital, entering was an old man in a wheel chair, Puck (Alexander Knox). The chorus of fairies appeared from in and under the beds, ghosts of children from the hospital? Puck regresssed to his younger self and left the wheelchair, also wearing pyjamas like the children. The fairies were played by a mixture of young adults and children with the four solo roles taken by female singers from the Guildhall (Alba Bosch Teixidor, Faustine De Mones, Iria Perestrelo, Laura Ruhi Vidal); this meant that the predominant sound of the chorus was more adult than childish; an advantage perhaps in terms of quickness of learning and rehearsal time, but a significant loss in terms of the evocation of innocence that the sound of boys voices brings. But the four adult fairies were convincing in their acting young, so that visually the chorus formed a coherent (if varied) ensemble; it was just vocally that

Oberon (Tom Verney) and Tytania (Eleanor Laugharne) appeared through windows; he dressed as a surgeon of the 1940's complete with apron, mask (painted on) and light on the top of his head - rather oddly he was wearing motorcycle leathers as his trousers; Tytania was dressed as a stylised, sexy nurse.

The lovers when they appeared (Lysander - Stuard Laing,  Hermia - Kathryn McAdam, Demetrius - Ashley Riches, Helena - Sky Ingram) were all in 1940's dress, the men in military uniforms. Again, when they left they disappeared through the windows.

Then suddenly the walls disappeared and we were in the forest which lay behind the hospital. From here on, until the closing scene, the production was pretty traditional. Except that, having Puck played by an adult student meant that Lloyd-Evans could make slightly more explicit the idea that Puck and Oberon have some sort of sexual relationship. Unlike some productions, the changeling boy was rather played down and it was Oberon's reconciliation with Tytania which caused Puck's jealousy.

At the end, the hospital reappeared and Puck went back to his wheel-chair.

Frankly, I'm not really sure what the hospital setting added to the production, it seemed an unhelpful and unnecessary gloss; and it saddled Verney's Oberon with a rather ugly costume. Luckily Verney has a strong stage presence and carried it off well. Verney has an attractive, well produced counter-tenor voice, nicely even in the entire range. Oberon was written for Alfred Deller, a cathedral alto for whom the C above middle C was an extremely high note. For modern young counter-tenors the tessitura of the role lies rather low and I have heard a few performances where the counter-tenor spends a lot of time changing vocal gear rather awkwardly. Not Verney, who impressed by the evenness of his delivery. His Oberon was pretty commanding and his singing of the great moments, such as I know a bank was nothing short of mesmerising.  Verney joins the Guildhall opera course later this year and I look forward to seeing him in other roles.

His Tytania was Eleanor Laugharne; she too had to cope with the directors pensées, being required to show a considerable amount of stockinged leg and be rather more overtly sexy than many Tytanias. Laugharne combined this with a attractive lyric voice, perhaps not a natural coloratura, but certainly richly attractive with a lively stage personality and she clearly has a strong technique, the various vocal flurries of the role seem to hold no terrors for her. She and Oberon had a believably volatile, sparky relationship.

The lovers formed a balanced group, each one vividly presented and nicely differentiated. Stuart Laing's Lysander was very ardent, Laing's voice hinting at other bigger possibilities. He was certainly not the typical English lyric and more dramatic roles suggest themselves, he already has significant experience both in the UK and in his native Australia, including Peter Grimes. Ashley Riches as a noble, upright Demetrius with a fine ringing baritone voice; he is on the second year of the opera course and the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme at the ROH beckons. The two women, Sky Ingram (Helena) and Kathryn McAdam (Hermia) formed a nice partnership. Both are on the second year of the opera course and already have significant stage experience. This showed in the way their two characters interacted, and the way the four lovers formed a believable group.

One of the advantages of the production was that, despite the oddities of the setting,  Lloyd-Evans clearly understands the way the opera is constructed, keeping different groups being distinct and ensuring that the wood was a present space which they entered, only to leave transformed. Unlike the recent ENO production, he didn't send the Mechanicals up. These were a group of men from the Home Guard; all nicely characterised and differentiated, but though we might laugh at their antics it was sympathetic laughter and the characters were never made fun of. To a certain extend, Lloyd-Evans had based the mechanicals on the men in Dad's Army and you could have fun matching character up, such as Jorge Navarro-Colorado's Flute  with Pike. But the cast were so entertaining themselves that this was soon forgotten. Barnaby Rea was a pompous, self-important man, slightly more sober and less comically ridiculous than some interpretations, but funny nonetheless, quite delightful when he fell for Tytania and suitably egocentric when playing Pyramus.

The play with a play, Pyramus and Thisbe, was presented as full of the pit-falls of amateur dramatics, it was funny but you also felt sympathy for the men trying to do their best. Lloyd-Evans brought out the class distinctions here, with the interjections of the Duke and the lovers being tartly condescending.

Navarro-Colorado was a fine, lyric Flute, as Thisbe he was an apt partner to Rea's Pyramus. Joseph Padfield's endearingly thick Snug, Luis Gomes as Snout, now a spiv rather than a tinker, and Hadleigh Adams rather camp Starveling all contributed to the characterful ensemble, with James Platt as the well meaning and rather befuddled Quince.

Ciprian Droma was a suitably impressive Thesesus with Catherine Backhouse as his Hippolyta.

Stephen Barlow conducted with obvious affection for the piece. I did wonder if one or two of his speeds were on the slow side, but he encouraged his singers and players into producing a highly musical performance. The young orchestra played the score with atmosphere, though the lack of a real pit meant that some passages had rather more presence than I am used to.

This was a performance which impressed with its musical values, it was highly satisfying to listen to - Barlow and Lloyd-Evans drew some very fine performances indeed out of their cast.

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