in: Reviews

April 30, 2011

Darkness to Light, Britten at the BLO

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Nadine Sierra (Tytania) and Andrew Shore (Bottom) with members of the PALS Children’s Chorus (Erik Jacobs photo)

In opera, when the Gods meddle in the affairs of men, the audience expects seria. Benjamin Britten must have realized this when he adapted Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream for the operatic stage. After all, he assigned the male lead (Oberon) to a countertenor, he gave his leading lady (Titania) an incredibly difficult coloratura in the second act, and there is even a parody of a mad scene at the end, accompanied by an obbligato flute reminiscent of the mad scenes in a number of Donizetti’s works. However, Shakespeare’s play is a comedy, and therein lies the rub. The libretto, assembled by the composer and his partner Peter Pears, contains several changes that help to re-center the focus on the comedy. Most important of these changes is the cutting of the first act of Shakespeare’s play, moving the majority of the action to the woods, and giving prime importance to the comical love of Titania and Bottom. Although these woods have their dark elements (for example, all of the men in the opera and play are remarkably violent), these elements are delicately balanced by the light, ethereal world of the fairies, their magic, and their obsession with love. It is this delicate balance that must be maintained in order for a production of Britten’s opera to achieve complete success.

While the Boston Lyric Opera’s current production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is aware of the darker attributes of Britten’s woods, which Set Designer John Conklin describes as “a dark place of contradictions, confusions, disguises and role-playing, potential violence and sexual panic,” what is left underrepresented is the magic, the beauty, and the love. For example, through the first two acts, Conklin’s woods are constantly shifting and changing from abstractions to literal spellings, but all of the wooded sets are unified by the common element of darkness. For the momentary effect, a dark mysterious background can be powerful, but when overused it can drag even the superb comic relief of the production’s Puck (Karim Sulayman) and Bottom (Andrew Shore) to the ground.

In his first time out as director of the BLO, is was clear that conductor David Angus shared Conklin’s interest in the darker elements of the story. His interpretation, ever paced with a weighty gravitas, for the most part seemed to take its inspiration from the night of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, when perhaps he could have thought a little more of Verdi’s lovers Nannette and Fenton from Falstaff. Angus’s slow and serious emphasis on the chromatic line was just too heavy, dampening the cast’s otherwise fantastic performances: and they were fantastic.

Indeed, in his debut with the BLO, Andrew Shore’s smooth baritone stood out even better than his hilarious braying, giving him the strongest performance of the evening. Competing with this was Nadine Sierra’s excellent performance as an elegant, regal and flirtatious Tytania (one of Britten’s best female roles), whose line she performed with a remarkable clarity, technique, and intonation. John Gaston’s Oberon was delightful with a warm and silken countertenor. Although the part is structurally not difficult, having been written for a singer with a less agile top, Gaston’s excellent acting raised the bar for this role significantly.

The human lovers were also noteworthy. Helena (Susanna Phillips) and Demetrious (Matthew Worth) made a handsome couple and their opening slapstick contrasted well with Hermia (Heather Johnson) and Lysander’s (Chad A. Johnson) innocent vows of undying love. They handled the confusion and recriminations of the second act quartet with a virtuosic ease. Their costumes, designed by Kaye Voyce, were of a sumptuously rich Victorian vein. Of course, the PALS Children’s Chorus stole the show. The chorus’s lullaby that put the lovers to sleep at the end of the Second Act was simply, and delicately, beautiful.

John Gaston (Oberon), Susanna Phillips (Helena), Matthew Worth (Demetrius) (Erik Jacobs photo)

Ultimately, it wasn’t until the final act that the comedic aspects of the opera finally found their place. In the court of Theseus, who was played with stately authority by Darren K. Stokes, the rustics’ rendition of “The most Lamentable Comedy and most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisby” gave the audience an opportunity to finally get a good belly laugh. Even the lovers, as part of the onstage audience, seemed relieved as they joined Hippolyta (Ann McMahon Quintero) in shouting criticism at the rustic actors. If the bard was right in saying that “all’s well that ends well,” the production was a success.

As the final production of the season, Midsummer’s Night Dream appropriately caps off a wonderful season of experimentation and originality from the Boston Lyric Opera. From the restaging of canonic works like Tosca’s murderous ritual to the production of rarities like the Britten or Ullmann’s Emperor of Atlantis, the BLO has proven itself to be an innovative and professional company that is dedicated to sharp productions. Their balance of world-class talent with local community involvement is admirable. While this reviewer has, at times, questioned the individual choices made in these productions, the fact that the company regularly treats tradition as an aesthetic choice is one of the most important characteristics of the BLO. At times irreverent and at others respectfully conservative, the Boston Lyric Opera is one of New England’s best cultural jewels. We are lucky to have it.

Joseph E. Morgan is a PhD graduate of Brandeis University, where he studied early German romantic opera. He lives and teaches in the Boston area.

 

3 Comments

  1. I just loved the opening night performance, despite the problematic sets. Sure the play is a comedy, but so is The Merchant of Venice. The label means little. The “light, ethereal” world of the fairies is the one in which the leads are squabbling and have upset the cycle of the seasons. An ethereal approach is what enervates many performances of Britten’s music, like the 1981 Haitink-conducted Gyndebourne performance available on DVD.

    I found this performance faster paced and robust, though I realize pace is hard to judge when one is so fully engaged and I hadn’t heard this small-orchestra version before. What we got was terrific drama, fully realized characters, directed by a man who clearly heard the music, directed his players with constant awareness of the orchestra, and never fought it, which is the usual directorial sin. I’ve searched the review above for mention of his name and it’s not there. So three cheers for TAZEWELL THOMPSON. He’s a master of character-driven performance who has that rarest talent…knowing when to back off. Amidst all the hubbub and humor (see the photo of Helena clinging to Demetrius’ leg above), he gave us a wonderful still point, Helena’s most poignant and domestic evocation of her sisterhood with Hermia:

    We, Hermia, like two artificial gods,
    Have with our needles created both one flower,
    Both on one sampler, sitting on one cushion,
    Both warbling of one song, both in one key,
    As if our hands, our sides, voices and minds,
    Had been incorporate. So we grow together,
    Like to a double cherry, seeming parted,
    But yet an union in partition;
    Two lovely berries moulded on one stem;

    (That’s Shakespeare, not Britten’s libretto, but close enough.) The point is that Tazewell found the human heart amid the misapprehension and confusion, and then let it speak, with Helena seated on the ground mid-stage facing the audience. A breath-taking moment.

    One final point. The production takes the 3-act opera and performs it with a single intermission in the middle of Act II. Nevertheless the production marked the end of Acts 1 and 2 by stopping the action and bringing down the curtain just as if we were going to break for intermission. I rather enjoyed that. We still had a major interruption in the middle of Act 2, but I think it good not to try to bridge the unbridgeable and recognize where Britten was writing music for the fall of a curtain. A nice compromise overall.

    Comment by Bill — May 3, 2011 at 1:57 pm

  2. Hey Bill,
    Not to quibble, but it’s not just a label, it’s a genre. Further, the ‘Merchant of Venice’ is a ‘tragic comedy’ and an odd one at that—quite different from (and darker than) ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ As for the director, I guess I’ve always been weak at the obligatory roll-call aspect of reviews and for that I apologize. Mr. Thompson did indeed direct the opera and perhaps if he hadn’t “backed off” so much and instead “fought” the sluggish interpretation of the score, the opera would have been more than a qualified success. I do agree, however, that placing the intermission in Act II worked quite well. Thanks for reading!
    Joseph E. Morgan

    Comment by Joseph E. Morgan — May 3, 2011 at 8:57 pm

  3. I heard yesterday’s performance and thought the production was terrific – very well sung and played. Britten’s Act I unfolds episodically – and without hurry. It is notoriously hard to pace, but that is how Britten and Pears designed it. Yesterday’s performance was led masterfully by David Angus and did not strike me as sluggish at all. No doubt by dividing the piece in half (which presents some pacing problems of its own), management was able to avoid union overtime charges which is understandable. Or perhaps it was an artistic choice. It worked adequately, but I must say I think the piece works better with two intermissions. I missed particularly the harmonic structural unity of Britten’s Act II.

    Comment by Michael Beattie — May 9, 2011 at 1:26 pm

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