“If we shadows …” queries Puck towards the end of both play and opera. Shadows do in fact flicker all around us as far as this revival of James Conway’s 2006 production is concerned. It may just have been a quirk of Matt Haskins’ lighting – concert hall stages do not transform perfectly into theatrical ones – but there was much shadow play skittering across the Maltings walls.
That wood near Athens – in this case somewhere much nearer home and at a time when the English Civil War looms closer than Greek mythology – is a sinister place, peopled by creatures shrivelling up from human encroachment. Oberon (Jonathan Peter Kenny) and Tytania (Gillian Ramm) are courtly tatters of a fast-vanishing culture, he corpse-faced and still dangerously manipulative, she a limber, blowsily self-indulgent Gloriana. Authoritarian Theseus (Nicholas Lester) and resentful half-conquered Hippolyta (Lise Christensen) are their discordant echoes.
When the escaping lovers Hermia (Niamh Kelly) and Lysander (Michael Bracegirdle) and their pursuers Helena (Laura Mitchell) and Demetrius (Robert Davies) stumble (quite literally) into this enchanted place they are disorientated and lose rationality. Britten’s score slithers chromatically in keeping with this collision of different worlds and the cast does it full justice with Mitchell especially radiant-voiced as Helena and Ramm tackling Tytania’s coloratura effortlessly.
Andrew Slater is bully Bottom to the life, hilariously translated by the donkey head and disproportionate phallus wished on him by Puck (David Gooderson). Martin Robson grumbles away as Quince while Mark Wilde as Flute lives up to his part. The Pyramus and Thisbe interlude with its affectionate parodies of Verdi baritone arias and Donizetti high soprano roulades is as funny as ever with Benedict Quirke, Nicholas Merryweather and Henry Grant-Kerswell] as Snout, Starveling and Snug respectively.
The quartet of fairies – Abigail Kelly, Anna Huntley, Norah King and Catrine Kirkman – busies itself on and under the moss-shrouded and decaying fallen tree which is the centrepiece of Joanna Parker’s set. I would have liked clearer articulation from Kenny; the notes were all there and he acts very well but the words spiralled away to another place altogether. Gooderson’s earthy Puck, cocooned both physically and spiritually, binds all the opera’s elements together. Michael Rosewell conducts with enormous sympathy for the music’s blend of truth and fantasy.