English Touring Opera at Sadler’s Wells – A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op.64 – Opera in three acts to a libretto adapted from William Shakespeare by Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears

Oberon – Jonathan Peter Kenny
Puck – David Gooderson
Tytania – Gillian Ramm
Hermia – Niamh Kelly
Lysander – Michael Bracegirdle
Demetrius – Robert Davies
Helena – Laura Mitchell
Theseus – Nicholas Lester
Hippolyta – Lise Christensen
Nick Bottom – Andrew Slater
Peter Quince – Martin Robson
Francis Flute – Mark Wilde
Tom Snout – Benedict Quirke
Robin Starveling – Nicolas Merryweather
Snug – Henry Grant-Kerswell
Cobweb – Abigail Kelly
Peaseblossom – Anna Huntley
Mustardseed – Norah King
Moth – Catrine Kirkman

English Touring Opera Chorus & Orchestra
Michael Rosewell

James Conway – Director
Joanna Parker – Designer
Aideen Malone – Original lighting designer
Matt Haskins – Revival lighting

Reviewed by: Arnold Jarvist

Reviewed: 10 March, 2010
Venue: Sadler's Wells Theatre, London

English Touring Opera’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is a delight. Making a very welcome return since its original 2004 staging, this is a not-to-be-missed treat.

James Conway’s enchanting production is minimal in design, but extremely effective. Essentially no more than a giant gnarled fallen tree amid clumps of reeds and bushes against a pitch black stage, glistening half-lights and swirls of mist ensure an intimate and atmospheric effect. Only in the dawn scene at the start of Act Three, when the stage is flooded with light, does the set look a bit sparse and cheap, but darkness soon descends again, bringing back its magical aura.

This may not be Britten’s most profound score (although it has many profound moments), but it is certainly one of his most beautiful and evocative. One of the greatest glories of this performance was the magnificent playing of the ETO Orchestra under Michael Rosewell. The unsettling, softly breathing forest-music bewitched, every sinewy string glissando immaculately rendered; Puck’s trumpet calls were bright and agile; the Mechanicals’ trombone tunes aptly bold and lumbering. From exquisite woodwind to shimmering harp, luscious strings to vibrant percussion, Britten’s distinctive orchestration was done the fullest justice.

There is not a single weak link in the exceptionally strong cast. Voices are well-rounded, characterisations consistently engaging. First to appear, Jonathan Peter Kenny’s Oberon is a darkly brooding, commanding presence throughout all of his scenes, clad in black with a striking shock of steely-grey hair. His four principal fairies scamper fleetly through the set’s nooks and crannies like feral children (the bigger companies would probably have employed dancers; it is a great tribute to these singers that they move so nimbly and energetically as well as singing superbly).

Against convention, but in a brilliant masterstroke, David Gooderson’s Puck (a speaking role) is an old man – his arms permanently tied up in bondage to his master Oberon. Gooderson’s sprightly delivery belies his years, and he leaps around with marvellously youthful vigour. Led by Andrew Slater’s excellent Bottom, the Mechanicals are an absolutely delightful bunch, their comic timing masterful. The presentation of ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ in Act Three, to the accompaniment of Britten’s galumphing operatic parodies, is hilarious. Each of the four lovers boasts a terrific voice and vivid, contrasting personality: Niamh Kelly’s Hermia, Laura Mitchell’s Helena, Michael Bracegirdle’s Lysander and Robert Davies’s Demetrius.

There is little to fault. An exception is the rope, presumably intended to cordon off the fairy domain from the real world, and across which the characters navigated with various degrees of elegance: a decent idea poorly executed for the black rope was almost invisible against the black stage. As ever, the Sadler’s Wells acoustic presented some difficulties for vocal projection, but these were rarely detrimental.

It seems to be a vintage year for English Touring Opera, this ‘Dream’ being presented in tandem with a storming “The Marriage of Figaro”. With their jealous lovers, warring spouses, devious scheming, unlikely trysts and comedic mix-ups, these operas have much in common and these ETO productions are fortunate enough to share first-rate principle singers.

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