Opera + Classical Music Reviews

A Midsummer Night’s Dream review – a journey through the shortest night of the year

16 June 2024

William Shakespeare, Benjamin Britten and Garsington Opera enchant our eyes and ears.

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Iestyn Davies & Lucy Crowe (Photo: Craig Fuller)

We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.

Throughout his life, Shakespeare mused upon the significance of dreams, with these lines written towards the end of his creative life and A Midsummer Night’s Dream towards the beginning. Netia Jones has taken this as her inspiration for this new production, which also reflects the idea that we dream in black and white when we have experienced something life changing during our day.

Life-changing events abound in this opera, and if you’re expecting plenty of faerie spangles, gossamer wings and a resolution of perfect bliss you’ll be disappointed, but go with an open mind and you’ll be suitably enchanted by this co-production with Santa Fe Opera. This is the mostly monochrome MSND, relying on Britten’s wondrously beautiful music to supply much of the colour; it is superbly played by the Philharmonia Orchestra under Douglas Boyd, bringing out all the unresolved tensions and sweet resolutions of the score.

There are splashes of bright colour amongst the mechanicals, in  Puck’s lime green suit, the human lovers’ red socks and a burgeoning oak tree – but overall the sense is of shadowy experience beautifully enhanced by D.M. Wood’s crepuscular lighting. Jerone Marsh-Reid is an athletic and more than usually sympathetic Puck, his relationship with Oberon subtly equivocal.

The fairies are not cute little poppets but a sinister bunch of dominant sprites, clad entirely in black and sung by local children brilliantly prepared by Ashley Beauchamp and his team. Their singing was as eerily effective as their mesmerizing movement, and they are, as they should be, the stuff of nightmares.

“…go with an open mind and you’ll be suitably enchanted…”

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Lucy Crowe & Richard Burkhard (Photo: Craig Fuller)

Both the original play and the opera usually find the self-importance of both Queens, of the human and spirit world, mellow into delight and harmony with their husbands, but here they retain their haughtiness to the very end, their coldness towards their husbands suggesting that even though the young lovers are destined for bliss, it may well be short-lived. Both queens are magisterially sung by Lucy Crowe (Titania) and Christine Rice (Hippolyta) reminding us that the former commands the natural world and the latter was Queen of the Amazons.  

Their husbands, by contrast, are something of a weedy pair – Theseus has over-indulged in the celebratory champers and Oberon is far from the dominant figure with which one might be familiar from the likes of James Bowman. Nevertheless, Iestyn Davies’ king of the fairies is beautifully sung, his phrasing and tone poetic and as subtle as you would expect, and Nicholas Crawley makes the most of Theseus.

The four young lovers are enthusiastically interpreted and very well sung  by Caspar Singh, Stephanie Wake-Edwards, Camilla Harris and James Newby, the last revealing a supple and finely phrased baritone. The mechanicals are an unusually serious bunch, very earnest in their preparations and performance, with especially delightful cameos from Richard Burkhard’s Bottom and  Geoffrey Dolton’s Starveling, and James Way the star of the show with his ‘diva’ Flute / Thisbe.

The sense of several different worlds is finely captured here, with Britten’s music delicately echoed in video projections suggesting both the passage of time and the constant burgeoning and retreating of nature. If the overall feeling is of melancholy rather than joyous celebration, that is no bad thing given the unity of Britten’s music with the underlying sombre quality of the language: as Shakespeare writes in one of his Sonnets:

“When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see
For all the day they view things unrespected;
But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee,
And darkly bright are bright in dark directed.”

• Details of upcoming performances can be found here.

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