Friday, 2 March 2018

A return to the world of sleep and dreams: Robert Carsen's production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream

Britten: A Midsummer Night's Dream - Christopher Ainslie, Soraya Mafi, Trinity Boys Choir - English National Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Britten: A Midsummer Night's Dream - Christopher Ainslie, Soraya Mafi, Trinity Boys Choir - English National Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Benjamin Britten A Midsummer Night's Dream; Christopher Ainslie, Soraya Mafi, Clare Presland, David Webb, Matthew Durkan, Eleanor Dennis, Joshua Bloom, dir: Robert Carsen, cond: Alexander Soddy; English National Opera at the London Coliseum
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 1 2018 Star rating: 3.5
Night and dreams are the focus in Robert Carsen's production, revived with a fine young cast as the fairies and the lovers

Britten: A Midsummer Night's Dream - David Webb, Clare Presland, Matthew Durkan, Eleanor Dennis - English National Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
David Webb, Clare Presland, Matthew Durkan, Eleanor Dennis
English National Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Having given us Christopher Alden's strangely dystopic production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream in 2011, English National Opera (ENO) has opted for Robert Carsen's bed-inspired vision for the latest revival of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the London Coliseum on 1 March 2018. Carsen's production debuted at Aix-en-Provence in 1991, was first given by ENO in 1995 and last performed by them in 2004, and for this revival, the cast featured the ENO Harewood Artists strongly. Christopher Ainslie was Oberon and Soraya Mafi was Tytania, with Clare Presland, David Webb, Matthew Durkan and Eleanor Dennis as the lovers, Joshua Bloom was Bottom with Graeme Danby, Simon Butteriss, Timothy Robinson, Robert Murray and Jonathan Lemalu as the Mechanicals, Andri Bjorn Robertsson was Theseus and Emma Carrington was Hippolyta, with Miltos Yerolemou as Puck, and the Trinity Boys Choir. The conductor was Alexander Soddy, who is currently musical director of the Nationaltheater, Mannheim.

The forest in Carsen's production is the world of sleep and dreams, and beds feature heavily in Michael Levine's decor, whilst costumes give clear visual definition to the various groups in the opera, complementing the musical stratification which Britten uses to define his characters. There is a big cuteness element in the treatment of the fairies (the excellent Trinity Boys Choir) with their tailcoats, very formal manners and elaborate choreography (originally Matthew Bourne, revived by Daisy May Kemp). Perhaps the production does not dig very deep into the opera's psyche and is a little too keen to please, but it forms an excellent vehicle for such a revival with a large contingent of young singers.
Britten: A Midsummer Night's Dream - Soraya Mafi, Joshua Bloom - English National Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Soraya Mafi, Joshua Bloom - English National Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Yet, A Midsummer Night's Dream was originally written for the Jubilee Hall in Aldeburgh, which seated just over 300 as opposed to the London Coliseum which seats over 2000. Like the recent productions of G&S at by ENO, there is a sense of Britten's opera having to be re-invented to fill the Coliseum spaces, and you felt that not all the performers in this revival had yet found their feet.

Christopher Ainslie looked superb as Oberon, tall and aristocratic with a slightly icy demeanour which works well with Britten's writing for the counter-tenor voice (as originally sung by Alfred Deller). But the tessitura of the role is rather low for a modern counter-tenor, and though Ainslie sang with a lovely warm timbre and flexible sense of line, his voice not project with the sort of commanding grace which the role needed though having so much of the action up-stage did not help. Alexander Soddy's speeds seemed, at times, dangerously slow and Ainslie's 'I know a bank' was rather slower than was ideal.

By comparison, Soraya Mafi as Tytania had got the measure of the venue and projected the role's coloratura with personality and ease. She made a delightful Tytania, not as bitchy as some, and brought real charm to Britten's roulades and an underlying sense of humour in the scenes with Joshua Bloom's bottom. Given her fine performance has Handel's Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare for English Touring Opera, Mafi is clearly a talent to watch in this repertoire.

Britten: A Midsummer Night's Dream - Jonathan Lemalu, Robert Murray, Timothy Robinson, Graeme Danby, Simon Butteriss, Joshua Bloom - English National Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Jonathan Lemalu, Robert Murray, Timothy Robinson, Graeme Danby,
Simon Butteriss, Joshua Bloom - English National Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Clare Presland as Hermia, David Webb as Lysander, Matthew Durkan as Demetrius and Eleanor Dennis as Helena made a lovely, well-characterised group of lovers, clearly relishing the opportunities that the second acts confusions gave them. Each brought a nice sense of character to the role with Eleanor Dennis's rather uptight, blue-stocking Helena (who loosens up considerably),  Clare Presland's spunky Hermia, David Webb's nice but dim Lysander and Matthew Durkan's bellicose Demetrius. In a smaller venue this would have worked very well, young voices singing roles just right for them, but in the Coliseum, an element of the drama did not quite cross the footlights and though it looked good, the singers' sense of engagement did not quite project. But this is something which will develop over the run.

With such an experienced group of Mechanicals, there was little danger of the drama failing to project here. Joshua Bloom made an engaging Bottom, well sung and nicely characterised with an arrogant swagger but without too much of the self-importance which can be a bit annoying. He had great fun with the suggestiveness of the donkey costume. The others were all effectively and colourfully projected, with Robert Murray's bashful Flute, Graeme Danby's officious Quince, Simon Butteriss's rather overlooked Starveling, Timothy Robinson's delightful Snout and Jonathan Lemalu as an engagingly dim Snug. They had great fun with all the comic business, and frankly, the only way to play the operatic send-up of 'Pyramus and Thisbe' is to play it to the hilt, which they did.

Britten: A Midsummer Night's Dream - Christopher Ainslie, Miltos Yeromelou - English National Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Christopher Ainslie, Miltos Yeromelou
(Photo Robert Workman)
Andri Bjorn Robertsson and Emma Carrington made a noble looking Theseus and Hippolyta, joining with the lovers in the third act to make terrible fun of the Mechanicals.

Miltos Yeremolou made a very funny Puck. A very physical performer, sometimes you wondered whether it was a little too much, should the production be quite as funny as that. But then, Carsen's overall conception does not really mine the darker side of the opera, and I rather longed for something which sat between Carsen's cuteness and Christopher Alden's dark dystopian view.

The Trinity Boys Choir performed admirably as the fairies, dealing admirably with the complexity of the staging along with Britten's music. The four young soloists, Aman de Silva, Lucas Rebato, Caspar Burman and Dionysius Sevastakis made a fine quartet of solo fairies.

Conductor Alexander Soddy, making a rare appearance in the UK, brought a great sense of detail to Britten's score and drew out some lovely and evocative textures from the players. The opening string glissandi were simply magical, but on occasions, Soddy seemed to rather linger too long over lovely details. In what is quite a long piece, you wanted a bit more dramatic impetus.

This was a revival which you feel needs a little more time to come into focus, but it presents a welcome opportunity to hear five of the current ENO Harewood Artists alongside other young singers, complemented by a fine group of Mechanicals.

Elsewhere on this blog:

  • The complete piano works of John McCabe - volume 1 (★★★½) - CD review
  • Handelian celebration with the Foundling Hospital Anthem  (★★★½) - concert review
  • Bach on the piano, Sandro Ivo Bartoli in Bach's smaller pieces (★★★★½) - CD review
  • Well worth crossing the Red Sea for: Rossini's Mosè in Egitto from Chelsea Opera Group (★★★★½) - opera review
  • Music, myth and time: Karen Cargill and the Scottish Ensemble at Kings Place (★★★★½) - concert review
  • A varied career: our interview with violinist Thomas Gould finds him in a thoughtful mood - interview
  • Má vlast: Jiri Belohlavek's last recording with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra - CD review (★★★★)
  • Notable recital debut disc from French Horn player Ben Golscheider - Cd review (★★★★)
  • 18 years after its premiere, Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking receives its first UK performance - Opera review (★★★½)
  • Gerstein plays Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue and Piano Concerto in F - CD review (★★★★)
  • Satyagraha: Philip Glass's opera at ENO - Opera review (★★★★)
  • Musical Arcadia: Handel at Vauxhall on Signum Classics - CD review (★★★★)
  • Motherhood and memory: Helen Grime's Bright Travellers at the Wigmore Hall - Concert review (★★★★)
  • Bernstein, Gubaidulina & more: violinist Vadim Gluzman on the importance of contemporary repertoire  - Interview
  • Home

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