If 2018 brought great excitement as Nevill Holt Opera opened its new 400-seat opera house inside its historic stable block courtyard, and commenced orchestral partnerships with the Britten Sinfonia and Royal Northern Sinfonia, 2019 is seeing it continue to reap the benefits of these moves. Already this year the house, designed by architects Witherford Watson Mann in conjunction with theatre designers Sound Space Vision, has won three RIBA East Midlands Awards, while its collaboration with the Britten Sinfonia means it is in the perfect position to present A Midsummer Night’s Dream to a musically high standard.
Anna Morrissey’s production is relatively lo-tech, but everything is presented so delightfully that it really generates a sense of wonder in nature. Simon Kenny’s set sees the stage framed on three sides by silver stringed curtains so that the fairies (the excellent NHO Children’s Chorus, who are drawn from the Academy of Schools of the David Ross Education Trust) almost magically appear as they come through them. An upper tier then carries foliage and a huge moon while the fairies and other characters often appear among the various levels of the auditorium as well. However, it only takes a double door to open in the centre of what until then looked like an entirely flimsy wall of silver to create a very different feeling space for Theseus’ palace in Athens.
The quartet of lovers all wear pyjamas as if they had fled Athens in a hurry, but the fact that they still have a greater association with society is highlighted by the fact that Helena and Demetrius carry modern torches while the fairies, who sport white hair with pyjamas and military tops, bear more graceful lanterns.
Everything is told in a very understandable manner that also introduces a wealth of telling details. For example, when Hermia tells Lysander she does not wish him to lie with her when they are first in the forest, it means he cannot share her sleeping bag and must lie on the other side of the stage with nothing more than a blanket to keep warm. However, it is because Puck finds Lysander lying apart from the woman that makes him assume he does not like her, and thus that he is the target for the juice. There is humour too as Lysander and Demetrius duel for Helena in their underpants. Puck meanwhile enjoys the entertainment they provide with a bucket of popcorn, and is even mischievous enough to stick Lysander’s pyjama bottoms on his head and tie Demetrius’ legs together with his own pair.
The rude mechanicals all embrace their characters well while for the most part keeping their expressions and reactions in check. They go all out for the humour, however, in the ‘play within a play’ that even sees Thisbe chasing the lion at one point as programmes for ‘The Most Lamentable Comedy and Cruel Death of Pyramus & Thisbe’ are thrown to the audience. The Bergomask dance that ends it is hardly in keeping with anything else, but, in the same way as Theseus says that the play requires no excuse, neither does this for the simple reason that it is very funny.
It may be less effective to highlight just how oppressive Hippolyta’s relationship with Theseus is, as it is not quite clear quite what purpose doing so serves other than to introduce another dimension for its own sake. However, the production remains strong to the end as a window at the back of the stage opens to reveal the real outdoors, thus emphasising both this piece’s and the overall summer opera experience’s place within nature.
There are many notable performances, but the highest accolades arguably go to Lawson Anderson as Bottom, whose bass-baritone is smooth, powerful and highly versatile. He also proves a good actor so that we gain a sense of the pleasure he feels when he has his ass’s head on, even though that is inanimate. As Helena, Meinir Wyn Roberts reveals an extremely engaging soprano although Martha Jones as Hermia, Peter Kirk as Lysander and Edmund Danon as Demetrius are also very strong. Daisy Brown is a suitably intriguing Tytania, Jasper William Cartwright contributes some acrobatics in the non-singing role of Puck, while Padraic Rowan and Anna Harvey prove extremely accomplished performers, despite the parts of Theseus and Hippolyta being quite small.
Special mention should also be made of local Leicestershire singer Timothy Morgan, whose pleasing countertenor is given many opportunities to shine in the role of Oberon. By the time we have added in Artistic Director Nicholas Chalmers’ excellent conducting, which combines with the Britten Sinfonia’s superb command of the score, the dream on this occasion feels as if it has become a reality.
Nevill Holt Opera’s 2019 season, which includes productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Così fan tutte, continues until 2 July. For full details and tickets visit the designated website.