Opera North's ‘Festival of Britten' demonstrates the range of the composer. A Midsummer Night's Dream is a much lighter opera than the anguished Peter Grimes but continues to reflect the composer's concern for outsiders in society.
There is a subtle suggestion of a dominant / submissive relationship between Oberon and Puck and the workingmen putting on a play for the ruling class are over-awed by the opulence of the palace.
Benjamin Britten's score is relaxed and languid - perfect for a sleepy fantasy. Inspired by the other world tone of the music director Martin Duncan delivers a science fiction setting for the opera. The feel of a space opera generated by Johan Engels's set, comprising Perspex panels and floating balloons, is enhanced by the metallic military style costumes worn by Oberon and Tytania. As the set is constant throughout scene changes are highlighted by shifts in lighting from vibrant reds and turquoise through to rainbow psychedelic.
This is a production that confounds expectations. Although opera is associated with grand performances Darren Jeffrey's interpretation of Bottom is relaxed, natural and very funny. The animalistic Puck (Daniel Abelson) does not so much sing as bark out lyrics in a guttural tone. Contrary to most theatre productions the humans are more anarchic than the fairies. The quartet of lovers is portrayed as freethinking, colourfully dressed hippies. The fairies on the other hand seem like the ultimate in conformity.
Rather than employ the Opera North chorus Duncan makes excellent use of 19 members of a children's' choir to portray the fairies. Their entrance sets a disquieting tone – appearing as shadowy figures obscured by the Perspex they might be demons rather than fairies. Once they are clearly visible the effect is even more startling. Dressed by Ashley Martin-Davis in identical white costumes and blond wigs and moving in unison they seem more like the sinister gestalt mind of ‘The Midwich Cuckoos' than mischief-makers.
The comedic aspects of the opera take awhile to emerge. The relaxed music and need to set the scene makes the first Act a jerky stop-go affair. Once the exposition is sorted out the opera settles down to a very funny production full of synchronised sighing and ‘whoops- there go my trousers' moments. Duncan even dares poke fun at the Shakespearian convention of male actors portraying women with the amateur actors straining for, and missing, high notes.
This is a production that constantly enchants and surprises – ideal for offsetting a rainy winter night.
- Dave Cunningham