A ‘heatwave’ (well, temperatures above 70F) and a classic production of Benjamin Britten’s loving tribute to Shakespeare make for the perfect ending to the Summer country house opera season. If you’re old enough to have seen Peter Hall’s original staging in 1981, you won’t be disappointed with Lynne Hockney’s faithful, snappy revival, and if you’re new to it you will be enchanted.
Enchantment is partly what it’s all about – has the word ‘magical’ ever been so frequently used by audience members? – but what makes Shakespeare’s play and Britten’s astute re-working of it so remarkable is the study it offers of three disparate yet inter-connecting worlds: that of the spirit kingdom, the realm of dreams and fantasies; that of the courtly and educated, the world of arrogance as well as romance; and that of the ordinary, uneducated yet genuine country folk.
These three worlds are brilliantly evoked in Britten’s music, and given performances here which generally live up to those of 1981 – which is saying a great deal. Tim Mead’s Oberon is a somewhat more genial figure than James Bowman’s beguilingly sinister fairy king, but he shares the latter’s ability to weave mesmerizing phrases as well as his sense of patrician aloofness. He is finely contrasted with Michael Sumuel’s gentlemanly Theseus, the arrogance in that couple definitely coming from Claudia Huckle’s elegantly phrased Hippolyta. The ‘fairy queen’ is convincingly acted and excitingly sung by Kathleen Kim, although on this occasion she was not in her absolute best voice; nor was Kate Royal as Helena, despite being about as near as you can get to equalling Felicity Lott’s ‘original’ assumption.
Elizabeth DeShong’s Hermia gave this Glyndebourne favourite another chance to display her comedic talents, and she was ably partnered by Benjamin Hulett’s sweet-toned Lysander – good to see him fulfil the promise he’d shown in last season’s Saul. Duncan Rock is another house favourite and his Demetrius was as well sung and convincingly acted as we’ve come to expect from him.
The “rude mechanicals” were led by the lovable Bottom of Matthew Rose, alert as ever to the comedy whilst singing with subtle phrasing and generous tone, and amongst the “actors” Anthony Gregory’s Flute and Colin Judson’s Snout were especially noteworthy – ‘Thisbe’s ‘atrocious’ singing and Snout’s defiant (or should that be definitive?) ‘Wall’ got plenty of laughs, and rightly so.
David Evans was a Puck whose mischievousness was just on the right side of malevolence, and he dominated the stage in all his scenes – one day this eleven year old will be making your flesh creep as Macbeth. The boys of Trinity Choir under the direction of David Swinson sang with clarity and acted with commitment, perfectly evoking the production’s atmosphere of the other-worldly yet never twee.
Jakub Hrůša quickly established himself as one of Glyndebourne’s most admired conductors with his direction of the LPO in the 2015 Carmen and in this season’s Cunning Little Vixen, and here he proved himself once more an exceptionally sympathetic ‘singers’ conductor,’ as alert to the needs of those onstage as he was to those of Britten’s wonderful music, which he obviously loves with a passion. There was some very fine playing to savour, most notably from the flutes and ‘cellos, and the orchestra’s conjuring up of the work’s different worlds was superb.
Peter Hall’s production, poetically lit by Paul Pyant, is one of the true Glyndebourne greats: from the shiver-inducing moving trees in the dark and mysterious forest, to the strikingly convincing great hall, everything works to partner Britten’s glorious sound worlds. Those wonderful loving tributes such as the quartet of lovers with its echo of Mozart, the dawn gradually approaching and the gentle parodies in the Mechanicals’ music are all sensitively and evocatively done, and the atmosphere created by the play upon the contrasts between darkness and light, is, for want of a better phrase, truly magical.