English National Opera @ Coliseum, London, 23, 25, 29, 5, 8 July 2004
On first viewing in 1995, this production seemed clever without unduly thwarting Britten's - or Shakespeare's - intentions. Sadly, this revival is over-the-top slapstick, going for the cheap laugh rather than allowing the characters any depth of feeling which might have engaged the audience. To anyone familiar with the text or the music, it is a disaster. Still, the Coliseum was perhaps 70% full on the first night and the applause at the end was warm, and for the sake of ENO I hope there will be even fuller houses during the run.
There was much to laud: I have never heard so many nuances teased out of the music as was so skilfully achieved by ENO's Music Director Paul Daniel with this best of all London orchestras. At times I wished I had the score in front of me just to confirm that what I was experiencing - and had never experienced before - was valid.
Sarah Tynan gave us a pure, spirited and colourful Titania, Leah-Marian Jones a similarly clear and poised Hippolyta. All of the young lovers suffered from having to jump through hoops (almost literally at times) that detracted from their musical performance. Robin Blaze's counter-tenor is not as big or resounding as that of Deller or Bowman - nobody's is! - but after two or three shaky minutes he settled down to give us a warm and honeyed Oberon, to be faulted only for not making enough of Britten's menacing music. But it is probably difficult to threaten if you are dressed in green pyjamas.
So, we return to the production - unashamedly, because opera is spectacle. The boys of Trinity Boys School, Croydon, were uncharacteristically under-rehearsed musically; probably they had spent too much time learning silly movements. Oberon and Puck occasionally strayed into the audience - why? Nothing dramatic was achieved by this. Was the intention to engage the increasingly estranged viewers? If so, it failed. It was only yet another awkwardness. At times the young lovers seemed locked into a bouncy castle universe. What was the point of all of those beds? I am happy to acknowledge the fecundity of the gigantic bed of the first Act, but thereafter beds made no sense. They run counter to the text and cannot be justified as interpreting it in a new and significant way. The lift-off of the beds in Act 3 is a dramatic coup de theatre, but what is it all about? Not Shakespeare - or Britten!
It has to be admitted that the tone of the original production, before this chronically bad revival, was dodgy: the back-lit crescent moon is reminiscent of the outhouse at the bottom of the garden! And the multi-beds were there too. Also the oversights such as somewhere for the Duke and his party to sit for the play of Pyramus and Thisbe (would they really have leaned against a bank? Do royal palaces have banks? Do they not have thrones and other chairs?); or the first reference to Moonshine's dog, when there was manifestly no dog there - while great comic but distracting play was made of the offstage dog later on.
This production might work in France, for which it was intended, but it does nothing for erudite opera goers in England.