Benjamin Britten's text for A Midsummer Night's Dream (written with Peter Pears) closely follows Shakespeare's play, with – inevitably – many cuts, but only one critical omission: the first scene which introduces us to the imminent nuptials of Duke Theseus and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, and the attempts of Egeus to force his daughter, Hermia, to accept his choice of her husband. This excision brings with it a shift of focus: Shakespeare's play is a comedy rooted in the real world of nobility, family relationships and love into which the dream world of magic and fairies gradually intrudes, finally spreading through the palace, whereas in Britten's opera we are in the dream from the outset. Strings shimmer, a children's chorus of fairies interacts with a feral sprite and the first adult male voice we hear is an otherworldly counter-tenor.
Martin Duncan, who directed the opera in 2008 and is back in charge for this revival, is an ideal choice with his outstanding record in comedy, operatic and otherwise. Details of expression, gesture and intonation ensure that we never lose touch with the fact that this may be a psychedelic trip, but it's also a funny show. Johan Engels' sets (all perspex balloons and strips), wonderfully lit by Bruno Poet, and Ashley Martin-Davis' imaginative costumes, which never stint on the glitter, complement the atmospheric and dangerously seductive sounds that Stuart Stratford eases out of the orchestra. But the scenes with the lovers, discarding garments in their druggy bewilderment, and the rude mechanicals, earnestly earthbound yet fuelled by dreams of dramatic success, are full of wit and fun.
Britten and Duncan's conception of Puck seems to me problematic and, well though Daniel Abelson plays the part, the uneasy result is the wild world of Pan filtered through middle-class sensibilities. Even here, though, there are many neatly judged comic effects.
Musically, the production is uniformly strong. James Laing and Jeni Bern, repeating their roles as King and Queen of the Fairies, seem even more authoritative than before. Tytania in particular is immaculately sung by Bern with diction to render the use of surtitles superfluous. The four lovers form an excellent team, with enormous promise in the performances of Sky Ingram and Kathryn Rudge.
The workmen's disastrous performance of Pyramus and Thisbe is, as it should be, the comic climax of the production, visual gags vying with parody of Italian opera, Nicholas Sharratt's heavily-bearded Flute making Thisbe first cousin to Kenny Everett, while Henry Waddington, splendidly resonant and self-absorbed as Bottom, tries very hard to live up to his helmet! Best of all perhaps is the children's chorus of fairies, full of unidentified menace, beautiful sounds and mysterious movement.