Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Titania in her bower in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Right now Hub audiences have the unusual chance to take in the second of two genius-on-genius Midsummer Night's Dream mash-ups: after Boston Ballet's splendid mounting of Balanchine's version last month, we can now savor Benjamin Britten's gorgeous response to the same masterpiece at Boston Lyric Opera (through this weekend at the Schubert).

It's pretty much agreed that both these derivative works are masterpieces in their own rights - and what's more, they serve as conceptual bookends for their expansive source. Balanchine stresses the romance and structure of Shakespeare's mother of all romantic comedies (and all but ignores its goofy "mechanicals"); Britten, meanwhile, emphasizes the work's infinite variety rather than its unity - musically, he conjures a different sound-garden, in fact, for each "cast" of characters.  And surprisingly he punches up the comedy, particularly the baggy-pants stuff; indeed the mechanicals are all but center-stage much of the time, and their travesty of the "tragedy" of Pyramus and Thisbe becomes the opera's hilarious climax.

It's here that the BLO soars to the same brilliant level it achieved in recent productions of Agrippina and The Emperor of Atlantis (it occurs to me that comedy may be their strong suit). But at first it seems director Tazewell Thompson and set designer John Conklin are a little lost in the woods themselves, and it takes the production a long time - indeed, the entire first act - to come together. The singing, however, is first-rate throughout, and Britten's instrumental writing is so lustrous that classical fans may not mind the conceptual confusion unfolding on stage.

No doubt Thompson and Conklin thought they were simply taking a note from Britten's own approach: just as the composer devised individual sound-scapes for Midsummer's different characters, so Conklin and Thompson seem to have concocted a separate look for each as well.  (Perhaps they also think that the "contradictions, confusions, and disguises" that afflict the play's characters should afflict the audience, too.)  Thus the lovers are roughly Edwardian, while Oberon and Titania seem more historic and fanciful; meanwhile the fairies look to be modeled on the Boy Scouts.  Odder still are the many design gambits Conklin offers and then discards: the general mood is mod and coolly geometric, but sometimes the furniture grows or shrinks like decor from Alice in Wonderland, and when the mechanicals wander through the forest, the trees are labeled "TREES" (apparently because Bottom and his crew are so literal-minded).  The moon remains an organizing motif, at least - but when things grow more surreal after Bottom's transformation, even it gets tricked out with a Man Ray photograph - again, just in case we don't "get it." 

A few of the contradictions and confusions in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Photo(s) by Erik Jacobs.
These ideas aren't "wrong," exactly, it's just that they keep calling attention to themselves, and begin to seem too clever by half - and that makes the opera feel disjointed and slightly incoherent, when actually Shakespeare's complex text and Britten's delicately ambiguous music are both highly unified beneath their surface effects.  (For the record, the opera's underlying style is something like Purcell gone modern - and it's worth noting that this is a rare case in which a Shakespearean opera is based on Shakespeare's own text, a stunning achievement in and of itself.)  There are some lovely vocals to savor, from the sweet countertenor of John Gaston's Oberon to Nadine Sierra's languidly plush turn as Titania, to Andrew Shore's robustly rendered bully of a Bottom.  And the children of the PALS Children's Chorus charmed whenever they sang.  Still, the performances somehow couldn't make much headway against a persistent sense of conceptual drift; and it didn't help that stage director Thompson and new music director David Angus both favored a very measured pace - which only gave us plenty of time to wonder what, exactly, they were getting at.

A heartbroken Thisbe (Matthew DiBattista) mourns the fallen Pyramus (Andrew Shore).
Luckily, things turned a corner at intermission; Britten's music gathers more dramatic momentum, and Conklin settled on a design motif, and the lovers got a wonderfully punchy scene to strut their stuff (that's Chad A. Johnson, Heather Johnson, Susanna Phillips, and the clarion-voiced Matthew Worth, above).  Best of all, the mechanicals did a boffo job with "Pyramus and Thisbe."  It's a little surprising to realize that Shakespeare actually invented "camp" some four hundred years ago with this little skit (it even includes what may be the stage's first drag queen), but Britten understood its true nature all too well, and offers up a hilarious parody of classic bel canto opera, complete with a mad scene out of Lucia di Lammermoor (above left), in which Lucia is a brawny lad with a mop on his head (played originally by Britten's lover/librettist, Peter Pears).   Here the whole sequence was pure perfection - balancing beautifully Shakespeare's point about perspective being everything in romance with his deeper affection for the faith that makes all romantic (and artistic) feeling possible.  And thus somehow Britten and Boston Lyric Opera brought off the depth of this great work as few theatrical productions do, making this Midsummer something of a dream in the end.

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