Thursday, 23 June 2011

A Midsummer Night's Dream, ENO

A Midsummer Nightmare. ENO have produced one of the most powerful and discombobulating stagings of an opera that I have seen there for a long time. That they've managed to do so with a production that many have, reasonably, found offensive and with an opera that in my opinion is one of Britten's less successful speaks volumes for director Christopher Alden's conviction. Set in a boy's prep school at the time of the opera's conception (1960), Oberon and Tytania become members of staff, Puck a petulant, confused student on the cusp of adolescence, the Athenians, sixth formers. The mechanicals are - as in the original - functionaries and minor staff. Additionally, the production uses a trope simultaneously being employed up the road in the Royal Opera's new Peter Grimes - an extra character, who, in this case, wanders the set as a grown version of one of the boys (probably Puck).

The conceit throws into relief a smorgasboard of connotations. The greyness of Charles Edwards' single, monumental two-storey set immediately makes sense of the apparent incongruity of the school inhabitants' talk of woods and magic, as allegorical escape from it. Not for the first time did I think of Lindsay Anderson's If... Alden plays fast and loose with terms, props and action - Oberon's narcotic flower becomes the brand of cigarette that he chain-smokes. But then Britten set Shakespeare's original without detailed adaptation and the disjunct between what's sung and done is no different from dealing with the anachronism is language for a modern audience. Above all there is a sexual tension between all manner of characters in the production, the most sinister suggesting the less palatable side to Britten's own interest in young boys, though we see no more than Oberon's hand on a shoulder of his 'Indian boy'.

For me the great triumph of the production is in the lighting. Adam Silverman conjures all sort of different shades that resonate with a post-war boys' school that move from realism to a stark expressionistic contrast that exacerbates the idea of horror. Both extremes move through a dusky sepia, familiar from the ubiquitous school photograph. Even the Englishness of the music benefits from the lighting design: just as the seemingly monochrome set becomes a matte canvas for a surprising range of colours and effects, so one becomes newly aware of the strange, layered character of the music (mainly buried in its orchestration).

The production works using the triggers of these ideas and connotations, framed by the photo-fixing of the light. Just as the story, a coming of age tale, oscillates between the imaginary and the real, the wished-for and the earthbound with, in retrospect, all its nostalgia and regret, so the lighting manages the transition in simple terms. The fourth wall assault, led by the (initially) mute character is part of this and culminates in one of the more shocking and hilarious moments in the piece (where, inevitably, a single, pointed profanity has greater impact than any part of the much trumpeted crudity of, for example, the Anna Nicole libretto).

Perhaps the most notable achievement of the production is that it makes its mark before all its own imperfections - let alone those of the (overlong) opera - can register. The second half of the second Act is a dull, slo-mo tableau where Britten's relative lack of interest in the lovers is clear and the beginning of the third is a simple case of one idea too many. Luckily, the opera has a notable bias from the theatrical to the musical compared to the play and ENO have assembled a fantastic cast to perform it. There's no weak link right own to the last mechanical and the excellent quartet of choirboys. I might say additionally that Anna Christy's Tytania and Tamara Gura's Hermia were on particualrly wonderful form at the performance I attended and that those who were denied Iestyn Davies (necessarily) charismatic Oberon in voice if not body at the beginning of the run can consider themselves unlucky. My greatest praise must be reserved for the conductor though. Though I've no doubt Britten does a lot of the tricky balancing work in his score, given the palette of staged voices used, it must be said that Leo Hussain teased music from the work to complement the production. From the start, the exoticism was consonant with the quasi-occult undertow of the score, rather than some sort of surface magic. One heard this no clearer than in the strangely curdled pastiche of Bel Canto that forms much of the mechanicals' play, a strange prismatic reading of a medieval lovers' tragedy in re-appropriated grand Romanticism (I simply hadn't heard this music before Hussain's reading).

I had thought of plenty to pick at but I was too busy trying to collect myself after the brilliant assault of the first half to worry about the imperfections of the second. Strong stuff.

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