Benjamin Britten's Shakespeare opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream opened the refurbished Jubilee Hall for the 1960 Aldeburgh Festival. There was another production in 1980 by Christopher Renshaw and designer Robin Don, which, for all its high-tech concept was, again, broadly traditional, and now there is this one from Netia Jones opening this year's Festival and marking the fiftieth-anniversary of Snape Maltings as a concert hall, even more of a techie-show but just as traditional. The fairy/human divide is clear, as are the class differences, and any Jungian or whatever other directional probing is at the audience's discretion, which has not always been this opera's fate.
The star of the show is Jones's elaborate video projection, played onto a stage-wide-and-high screen and is a constant, dwarfing presence: cogs and wheels for the Mechanicals, and for the spirit/person interface a sequence of nature images at their most opulent and mysterious – gorgeous flowers, a snake, spiders, rustling trees, all about their secretive, often deadly business – that leaves room for some gripping German expressionist-style live shadow-play and distortion from the respective worlds.
It may be heresy, but Britten and Pears's adaptation of Shakespeare doesn't result in the former’s strongest stage-work – the first and third Acts are taut enough, but I have yet to see a production that surmounts the longueurs of the lovers' various entanglements and their resolutions during Act Two – and Britten's superbly atmospheric, supernatural music and his brilliant ear for pastiche cry out for a visual fix. And we certainly get it in Jones's relentless solution; it’s like watching a vast TV screen, with a few people and even fewer props getting in the way.
Her video competes-with rather than complements the stage action – a pity, because the latter is sharply and affectionately drawn and recognisable – the boys' fairy-band chorus, singing with regimented aplomb, in blond wigs, sun-goggles and top hats, like Lord Snooty and his Pals out of The Village of the Damned; loud, red suits and dresses and a pair of jodhpurs for the lovers; and Captain Mainwaring-type suits for the Mechanicals.
The stellar cast is a Dream-team blend of character and virtuosity you can imagine Britten would have loved. Iestyn Davies's remote Oberon floods the Maltings with countertenor magic, matched by Sophie Bevan's equally imperious Tytania, wearing more of a contraption than a gown. There was no problem sorting out who's-who among the lovers, even though the direction is fairly static. Nick Pritchard's glorious tenor gives Lysander's passion extra charge; George Humphreys is in great, open voice as Demetrius, both men powerfully characterised; Clare Presland and Eleanor Dennis hone the differences between girly Hermia and horsey Helena in their big set-to. The Mechanicals, rather muted at first, came into their own in time for “Pyramus and Thisbe” (the play within), with Andrew Shore a superbly flustered Quince, and Matthew Rose, as full-voiced as I've heard him, brazenly self-confident as Bottom and a Hamlet-style Pyramus; Lawrence Wiliford's Flute is excellent and his gender-bending pleasure in his alter-ego Mad Lucia/Thisbe is a special delight, chased by Sion Goronwy's sandwich-guzzling Snug in a terrifying lion-mask. Jack Lansbury is a sensational Puck, a cart-wheeling acrobat of incredible agility and speaking Shakespeare's words with ringing clarity.
Ringing clarity, however, was a problem for most of the singers in this capacious acoustic – in general the men fare better than the women – and, given the static direction, the absence of subtitles to a fitfully audible text was felt strongly (and much discussed during the intervals). The Aldeburgh Festival Orchestra plays beautifully, Britten’s score given an interestingly astringent focus, separation and energy by Ryan Wigglesworth.
- Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday June 24 at 6.30 p.m.