Olivia Fuchs’ 2005 production of Britten’s take on Shakespeare’s most popular comedy returns to the Linbury Studio for a short run. Britten, with the help of Peter Pears, compressed the play and halved the text, although the effect is one of slowing the action rather than hastening it. It’s an evening that builds from a faltering start to an uproarious and ultimately uplifting finish.
A couple of years ago, Vaughan Williams’ Sir John in Love, based on The Merry Wives of Windsor, had an almost unprecedented outing at English National Opera and failed to thrill many people. With too lingeringly-elegiac a score, the opera doesn’t do justice to its source material and Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream suffers, in its first two acts, from a similar lack of dramatic impetus. But the younger composer, with a far greater instinct for what works on stage, doesn’t get it wrong for long. While there’s a fair amount of static material early on (albeit laced with some eerily-beautiful music), the last act bursts into magical life, with a lovers’ awakening which matches almost anything he wrote and a finale that streams with melodic inventiveness.
Fuchs’ production is for the most part efficient rather than inspired and it’s all a bit safe and unchallenging. The cast of spirits, lovers and amateur thesps is mostly under-characterised: Gillian Keith waves her arms and weaves slowly to suggest Tytania’s ethereality, Katie Van Kooten repeatedly pushes her spectacles along her nose as Helena, Andrew Kennedy whimpers whimsically as Flute while Matthew Rose‘s Bottom isn’t nearly big enough and Puck’s movements are of the most obvious balletic kind. If this were a production of the play rather than the opera (and there’s no reason to judge them differently), it would lack the imagination and invention needed to rescue it from descending into tweeness and clich.
The simplified set consists of two neon-framed boxes, an armchair and a pole down which the un-sung Puck (Jamie Reid-Quarrell) slides frequently (had he slid up it, that might have been magic), supported by shadowy projections that don’t add much. The action itself projects into the auditorium, the singers frequently invading the area in front of the extended orchestra pit. Act 1 ends with a striking image, Tytania’s thigh-length hair cascading Melisande-like, but even that was taken from a photo by Man Ray, as anyone who bought a programme would realise.
On the other hand, the singing of the predominantly young cast (it reads like a roll-call of Jette Parker Young Artist graduates) is uniformly excellent and Fuchs grabs the opportunities given her to end the evening on a crowd and eye-pleasing note.
The lovers are always far more interesting than the mechanicals, and even the fairies, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Jacques Imbrailo and Ed Lyon sparkle as Demetrius and Lysander. Tufty-haired counter-tenor William Towers is a majestic Oberon and members of the Tiffin Boys’ Choir are a melodious bunch of pyjama-clad boy fairies. Rory Macdonald, conducting the City of London Sinfonia, drives home Britten’s score with relish and delicacy.