I’ve never seen Britten’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ before, although I have sung one of the eerily beautiful arias from it. This was the second of two Shakespearean opera's I watched last Saturday having already seen Macbeth at the Royal Opera House in the morning. Unfortunately in comparison Macbeth was rather more impressive and gripping.
The English National Opera’s new production is certainly not conventional. Director Christopher Alden has scrapped the dreamy forest in favour of a 1960's school yard setting - a tad morbid and bizarre. Some of the characters are teachers (Oberon and Tytania) and some are pupils (Lysander, Hermia, Demetrius and Helena) whilst the lover’s tiffs from Shakespeare’s original turn to adolescent arguments and teenage romances. Charles Edwards’ set is strikingly beautiful and imaginative - giant brickwork walls of an urban British boys school, complete with high windows and several floors, it is staggeringly realistic. For me the design was the highlight of the production.
Visually this opera is quite unbelievable. The vast set and at times the sheer quantity of young boys on stage is enough to make you gasp. No-one can deny it is a daring production: Theseus is a weird paedophile, young boys smoke spliffs and drink and there is even a great fire that consumes the stage just before the interval... but I couldn’t help wondering how necessary all this drama is? It is not beneficial to our understanding, confused the already complicated narrative, and made little sense to me.
The large cast dealt with this odd interpretation as best they could. I have never seen so many young children in one opera - at one point when all the boys lined up across the stage I counted nearly 40! The vocal star of the show was most definitely counter tenor Iestyn Davies as Oberon. He sings this tricky part wonderfully with pitch perfect accuracy and gorgeous tone. I could have listened to him all night. The chorus excelled producing a rich sound and bringing the best out of Britten’s stunning music.
The orchestra worked persistently away in the pit on Britten’s tricky music, and I thought their rendition evoked all the magic of the Britten’s otherworldly score. Leo Hussain performed well too, conducting with a sensitive understanding of the music. Much of this opera’s music is quiet and hesitant - musical directions that are exhausting to conduct, especially for a three hour production. However, this didn’t seem to trouble Hussain at all and he seemed completely at ease throughout.
A very strange, and yet mesmerising production of Britten’s dazzling opera, go and see it if you like your opera a bit on the wild side.
Continues until 30 June, book here.