Tuesday 29 June 2021

Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream at The Grange Festival

Britten: A Midsummer Night's Dream - Alexander Chance, Chris Darmanin - The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Annand)
Britten: A Midsummer Night's Dream - Alexander Chance, Chris Darmanin - The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Annand)

Britten A Midsummer Night's Dream; Alexander Chance, Samantha Clarke, Chris Darmanin, Roberto Lorenzi, Angharad Lyddon, Peter Kirk, Alex Otterburn, Andela Simkin, Eleanor Dennis, Henry Waddington, William Thomas, Ben Johnson, Sion Goronwy, Gwilym Bowen, Johnny Herford, dir: Paul Curran, cond: Anthony Kraus; The Grange Festival

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 27 June 2021 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Britten's Dream in a strong ensemble production with a stylish, modernist twist, plus a notable debut from Alexander Chance

Britten: A Midsummer Night's Dream - Henry Waddington, Samantha Clarke - The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Annand)
Britten: A Midsummer Night's Dream
Henry Waddington, Samantha Clarke
The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Annand)
Paul Curran's production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream first appeared in Valencia and the director's re-working of this production for The Grange Festival was scheduled for last year. In the event, 2021 saw the production's debut at the festival with a somewhat adjusted cast. Paul Curran directed and designed the sets, with costumes by Gabriella Ingram and lighting by Paul Pyant. Alexander Chance was Oberon, Samantha Clarke was Tytania, Chris Darmanin was Puck, with Roberto Lorenzi and Angharad Lyddon as Theseus and Hippolyta, Peter Kirk, Alex Otterburn, Angela Simkin, and Eleanor Dennis as the lovers, Henry Waddington, William Thomas, Ben Johnson, Sion Goronwy, Gwilym Bowen, and Johnny Herford as the Mechanicals, Francesca Pringle, May Abercrombie, Isabel Irvine and Ceferina Penny as the fairies. Anthony Kraus was in the pit, conducting using a pre-recorded orchestral contribution from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (original conductor Sian Edwards).

Curran took a modish, modern view of the work and showed that Britten and Pears' take on Shakespeare works well without twee designs, cute boy trebles and such-like. There wasn't even a forest, just a classical ruin but Paul Pyant's lighting conjured many different atmospheres. Costumes were cutting edge modern, neo-Versace for the lovers, Theseus and Hippolyta, designs so achingly hip that they almost cut themselves. The fairy band were sci-fi modern with built-in lights, these weren't comfortable cutesy fairies. And in keeping with this, the fairy crew were far more involved in the actions of the humans, taking great delight in meddling, than is seen in some productions.

The opera began with a neat trick, effectively setting the scene. The ruin's modern keepers appeared on stage, these would be the mechanicals, setting things up for a party where the lovers, Theseus and Hippolyta appeared. In a quick dumb-show were introduced to all the humans, and to the complexities of their interrelationships. Bearing in mind that the production originated from out of the UK, where the audience's familiarity with the plot cannot be taken for granted, this was a lovely way to start.

When the production was originally planned for 2020, Oberon was to be sung by Patrick Terry. With the elapse of a year, his role was taken by Alexander Chance, a familiar name from consort singing and here making his stage debut. For any counter-tenor singing Oberon, there are big boots to fill (the programme book includes an entertaining article by James Bowman about his various performances of the work) and it is perhaps even more daunting to sing the role for the first time at a festival where not only is your Dad the artistic director but was himself a fine exponent of the role. So, no pressure there and much credit to Chance for showing no sign of this. His Oberon was, from the moment he first appeared and wondrous creation, tall, slim, mesmeric in the Chance's use of stillness, hauntingly beautiful in the arias and confident in the complexities of Britten's vocal writing. If the role sits awkwardly for Chance (as it does for many modern counter-tenors) he showed no sign of it and produced a lovely even tone.

Oberon isn't strictly the leading role, at most first amongst equals, and here Chance was surrounded by a terrific ensemble cast who gave everything to Curran's lively production and drew us through the story with laughter, slap-stick and much emotion.

Britten: A Midsummer Night's Dream - Eleanor Dennis, Alex Otterburn, Angela Simkin, Peter Kirk, Angharad Lyddon - The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Annand)
Britten: A Midsummer Night's Dream - Eleanor Dennis, Alex Otterburn, Angela Simkin, Peter Kirk, Angharad Lyddon - The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Annand)

Samantha Clarke made a strong Tytania; clearly a personality in her own right, this Tytania was anything but a gentle canary and Clarke's command of the coloratura was brilliant and dazzling. She even managed to rock wearing a costume that was probably intended to be sexy but felt just plain embarrassing. Puck was the dance-trained actor Chris Darmanin, creating a hyper-active, rather delightful and impish character. My only complaint was I wished Darmanin's rhythmic speaking had been more incisive at times.

The four lovers, Lysander (Peter Kirk), Alex Otterburn (Demetrius), Hermia (Angela Simkin) and Helena (Eleanor Dennis) were all played by young singers giving the lovers a convincingly youthful and highly active appeal. Each gave us a strongly etched character, the lyrically intense Lysander, demanding and self-regarding Demetrius, serious-minded Hermia and strong-minded Helena, so that relationships were nicely delineated leading to the wondrous chaos in Act Two when things unravel. Musically all four provided nicely contrasting voices, though Kirk has not yet seemed to have developed quite the heft needed for some of the more romantically intense passages.

A big credit here for the two young men, confidently able to ignore that they were reduced to just their underpants when, at the end of Act Two, the lovers all lose their clothes. I am still unclear why this happened, but underwear was something of a theme. During Pyramus and Thisbe, Ben Johnson's Flute wore a tunic so transparent that you could see his black underwear for comic effect, and Sion Goronwy's wearing of lurid green undershorts played a major role in his performance as Snug.

Britten: A Midsummer Night's Dream - Sion Goronwy, Johnny Herford, Gwilym Bowen, Ben Johnson,  Henry Waddington, William Thomas - The Grange Festival (Simon Annand)

The Mechanicals were also nicely delineated and well-matched. Curran brought in an element of slapstick, but this was kept well under control and much of what happened was simply funny. Henry Waddington was a commanding Bottom (a last-minute replacement for James Platt) making the character funny because of the serious intent with which Waddington played it. And the others played off him magnificently. Known very much as a lyric romantic lead, Ben Johnson showed a wonderful turn for comedy as Flute, a serious young man who again is funny through character as much as action. William Thomas looked absurdly young as Quince but displayed a finely resonant bass voice which made for an intriguing combination, whilst Gwilym Bowen's nervous Snout and Johnny Herford's wonderfully camp Starveling made up the sextet, each in fine form when their character got its moment in the spotlight. Part of the charm of Waddington's performance was that though commanding, he was not perpetually in the foreground.

The fairies were played by students from the Royal College of Music and the Royal Academy of Music, with the six bringing a distinctive, more mature character to the creatures than the innocence of boys. The four soloists, May Abercrombie, Isabel Irvine, Francesca Pringle and Ceferina Penney were a complete delight when forced to pay service to Waddington's Bottom. Last, but certainly not least, Roberto Lorenzi and Angharad Lyddon made a striking ducal couple, but strong characters we suspected.

We missed the feel of the live ensemble in the pit, but Anthony Kraus drew recorded orchestra and live singers together in a way that felt natural. This was a stylish and wonderfully engaging production, where the lively action never overwhelmed the drama, and slapstick didn't replace character in the comedy. It felt as if the performers were having a terrific time, and frankly so were we.

Britten: A Midsummer Night's Dream - Ben Johnson, Henry Waddington - The Grange Festival (Simon Annand)
Britten: A Midsummer Night's Dream - Ben Johnson, Henry Waddington - The Grange Festival (Simon Annand)

Paul Curran does not direct that many opera in the UK (his 2015 production of Britten's Death in Venice at Garsington is still a strong memory, see my review), so this evening was notable in many ways. I certainly do hope that the festival brings the production back another year when we can get the chance to hear it with a live orchestra.

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1 comment:

  1. Lovely review. We saw the production and given the difficulty encountered due to COVID they did Brilliantly. It is a shame you do not mention 2 of the 6 Fairies. Anna Munoz and Daisy Mitchell. They did not have solo parts but were acting and singing during most of the Fairy Scenes and also understudied for solo parts, they are currently at the Royal College of Music.


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