The current crop of Guildhall singers are a well-drilled outfit and a credit to their great school. The students are not to blame for the disappointment of A Midsummer Night's Dream; the responsibility for that rests jointly with Stephen Barlow, who conducts the limpest account of this limpid score I have heard – slow, shapeless, meandering and dull – and with Martin Lloyd-Evans's jumbled direction of Britten's magical opera.
It is a strange decision to use the Barbican Theatre's mammoth safety iron as a drop curtain before and after all three acts, the clunking noise of its mechanism raising mood-breaking titters from the audience, and an even stranger one to close it each time on a fully lit stage with hapless players stuck in awkward poses while they wait to be shielded from view. Connoisseurs of Acorn Antiques will be in their element. Such, though, is the degree of directorial misjudgement on display that these oddities simply integrate themselves into the experience.
Lloyd-Evans's staging ideas are over-inspired by other sources. These range from communal sleeping quarters (‘another day, another dormitory' as someone wrote after
Glyndebourne's Rinaldo last year) to a bed suspended in mid-air in shameless emulation of the iconic coup from Robert Carsen's celebrated Aix-ENO production of this opera. Although Dick Bird's handsome designs fill the vast Barbican stage and are atmospherically lit by Simon Corder, albeit with an over-emphasis on horizontal side-beams – a decision that causes too many unfortunate shadows – their creations have been placed at the service of a half-baked concept.
Shakespeare's familiar tale appears to emanate here from an aged, wheelchair-bound Puck's dream-like memories of strange events in World War Two. This conceit doesn't hang together for a moment. Oberon appears as a lab pathologist and Tytania a sister of mercy, but only in the lairy way a couple of partygoers might kit themselves out on ‘doctors-and-nuns' night. Lysander is from the RAF and Demetrius the Royal Navy, though nothing is made of that difference. The
changeling boy, once introduced, is never seen again, and Bottom somehow learns that the Mechanicals' "play is preferred" without ever leaving the stage.
The most imposing vocal performance of the ‘A' cast (other students sing on 1 and 6 March) comes from Ashley Riches, a resonant baritone and a match for any other Demetrius I can recall. He is in strong company, among whom Sky Ingram (an imposing Helena) Catherine Backhouse (doing what she can with the underwritten role of Hippolyta) make a notable impression. Alexander Knox is a bastion of fine diction in the spoken role of Puck, while Tom Verney and Eleanor Laugharne show outstanding promise as the Fairy King and Queen respectively, even if neither singer is yet the finished product. I deeply regret the predominance of
mature female singers in the Chorus of Fairies, though. Britten wanted boys' voices for this music just as specifically as he required harps in the orchestra rather than harpsichords.
While the student musicians would have benefited from a more robust interpretation by Stephen Barlow, they dealt well on their own terms with all the kinks and curls of Britten's orchestration. However, both on stage and in the pit the overall experience bordered on the joyless, with lame attempts at comedy – the clowns go for very little – and a closing scene that misses all the magic. In this opera, that takes some doing.