In its seventh revival, Peter Hall’s much-loved staging of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears’s rigorous reduction of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream comedy of self-discovery in the forest of dreams and desire continues to spread its heady mix of menace and fairy-dust.
Glyndebourne’s 35-year-old classic, last seen ten years ago, has expanded comfortably from the small old house into the much larger new one, while the piece itself has been gathering many directorial points of view, some of them trying to force its unadulterated magic down Britten’s well-trodden path of corrupted innocence.
Hall’s traditional, Elizabethanised staging, revived here by Lynne Hockney, manages to work round the opera’s moments of fitful inspiration, largely down to Jakub Hrůša’s ability in drawing superb playing and an extraordinary level of detail from the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
Just as importantly, Hrůša understands how close Hall and his designer John Bury get to the music’s dark, ambiguous spell – music and staging feed each other to a rare degree. Bury’s foliage – in Paul Pyant’s ravishing lighting it takes a while to make out that it is worked by stagehands dressed as trees and shrubs – become a living forest that beckons you to go deeper, to be more at risk. Even though the wood retreats in the third Act to make way for the palace – complete with an oddly touching log-fire – you know the humans have only briefly taken charge.
The singing is good, with a few dips in characterisation. Tim Mead’s Oberon was high on countertenor evenness and warmth in his eerie ‘I know a bank’ but low on menace – it’s a terrible trick he pulls on Tytania, but Mead, who looks wonderful in a gigantic, horned wig and doublet-and-hose, didn’t quite get that incisive sense of remoteness and sexual danger. Otherwise, the fairy band was on magical form, with a superbly confident, gymnastic and clearly spoken Jack-the-lad Puck from the diminutive David Evans, and crisply sung coloratura from Kathleen Kim’s spirited Tytania, feral but decorous in her dealings with Bottom, and utterly in thrall to Oberon’s manipulation. The Trinity Boys’ courtiers were a joy.
Among the lovers, it’s not clear why Lysander and Demetrius are dressed the same, and the four of them were not helped by some weak direction in their reconciliation scene. Benjamin Hulett ramped up Lysander’s ardour magnificently, and it was a pleasure to hear Demetrius sung with such cultivated poise by Duncan Rock. Kate Royal’s Helena isn’t as impetuous and charged as she was for the previous revival; Elizabeth’s DeShong’s sumptuous mezzo made Hermia compulsively attractive. With much of the lovers’ context excised, you have to take their dramatic importance for granted, and their big musical moments work hard to cover the cracks.
It was Bottom’s sexual awakening, though, that was more convincing, even if Matthew Rose, in generous voice, has yet to take full charge of Bottom’s swaggering ego. His singing was excellent, as was David Soar’s diffident Peter Quince, and Anthony Gregory’s Flute-as-Thisbe was a special pleasure in the pastiche of their play, where the direction made up for the flatness of the Mechanicals’ earlier scenes.
The orchestral scene-fades and preludes to each Act were charged with atmosphere, and the cello glissandos of the opening instantly delivered us into Britten’s world of ambiguous enchantment and harsh cruelty.