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Britten & Shakespeare in Harvard Diningroom


Douglas Dodson as Oberon
Douglas Dodson as Oberon (Mark Kelsey photo)

As noted in several prior BMInt articles and reviews, the Benjamin Britten centennial this year has sparked numerous performances locally of that composer’s works not commonly heard, at least hereabouts. Another such event was Lowell House Opera’s production of the 1960 A Midsummer Night’s Dream, op. 64, in the once and future dining hall of Harvard’s Lowell House. The run of this production began in late March and ended on April 6, which was the performance we saw. Britten’s is, as far as we can determine, the only proper opera setting Shakespeare’s text (the 1949 opera Puck by French composer Marcel Delannoy, used an adapted, not translated, libretto). It is regularly performed in the UK, but not as often in the US. One knowledgeable local conductor we spoke to remembered a performance at New England Conservatory some 20 years ago, but that was it for Boston.

Although Britten’s text consists almost entirely of Shakespeare’s words, the composer and his partner Peter Pears made a variety of cuts to tighten it for operatic purposes and shape it to their particular vision. For one thing, they eliminated the first act entirely, and began—and thereafter remained—focused on the interaction between the fairy world of Oberon, Titania (whose name Britten spelled “Tytania”) and Puck, with the various humans: the two pairs of lovers, Lysander and Hermia and Demetrius and Helena; and the troupe of amateur actors who produce the play within the play, “Pyramus and Thisbe” (which Britten spells Thisby). Another change, which, without any evidence whatever, we suspect may have been for professional reasons, was the omission of the wedding scene. This meant that Britten would not have to go mano a mano against Mendelssohn’s wedding march (This is not trivial: we once suggested to a prominent composer, who was in search of an opera subject, that he try Casablanca; his eyes widened as he said, “Are you crazy? If I did that, I’d have to write something to top ‘As Time Goes By.’ Fuggedaboudit!”).

Britten’s score for the opera contains some ingenious structural features in addition to some very beautiful music. Although solidly within Britten’s middle period harmonically, it is polystylistic avant la lettre, with the fairies’ music (just the slightest, but still noticeable, brush with Sullivan’s Iolanthe here) featuring sinuous string lines using portamento and glissando. Oberon’s music prominently features accompaniment by the celesta and is in a chromatic, spooky idiom, while Puck’s antics are set to bumptious brass and percussion. The lovers’ lines are, depending on the state of their relationships, florid and Italianate or harsh and curt as Harold Pinter dialogue. The “mechanicals,” as the troupers are often called, get a funky and goofy slapstick soundtrack (not Britten’s long suit, alas), while their play is set to a parody of Italian opera music (which, in truth, Sullivan also did better). And Tytania’s brilliant coloratura runs are squelched when she becomes chemically besotted with Nick Bottom (transformed by then into the ass he was before being transformed—cue hee-hawing violins, the only place where Britten couldn’t evade a Mendelssohnian trope).

Other striking features in Britten’s score include writing Oberon as a countertenor part (in the original production Pears, who normally featured prominently in Britten’s operas, took only a minor role), and setting Puck as a speaking role. At the same time, it must be acknowledged that many of the traits that have sometimes given Britten’s audiences pause are also manifest: long passages that occupy a shadowy blend of arioso, recitative and parlando, which strike many as noodling; and phrases that leave a listener wondering, “why that note, in particular?” Still, most of the music is effective; there are a few set pieces that are gorgeous, and the drama keeps it moving.

Evan Ross as Bottom/Pyramus (Mark Kelsey photo)

The LHO production, under Music Director Lidiya Yankovskaya, stage director Roxanna Myhrum, scenic and lighting designer Mark Buchanan, and costume designer Kirsten Connolly, had numerous inventive features as well. Instead of the Shakespearean setting of classical Athens and its forest environs, Myhrum conceived it as a dream in its entirety set in an academic library with a window out on a bosky scene (the whole set very nicely realized by Buchanan), with the “Athenian gentlemen” Lysander and Demetrius (Joshua Collier and Ben Henry-Moreland respectively) so designated by their fraternity sweaters (OK, that’s a pretty Lampoonish joke, but acceptable). By the way, the fraternities indicated were Sigma Chi and Alpha Epsilon Pi—we wonder if there was special significance to those particular choices. The most ingenious conception was Puck, who in this production starts out as a student in the library falling asleep reading—guess what—and, as he responds to the fairies, first quoting from his book, then as an active participant, becomes ever more frantic and disheveled, until he reassembles himself for the epilogue. Joshua Wortzel, a Harvard undergraduate, covered himself in glory in the role and displayed an astounding (to us geezers, anyway) gymnastic agility, clambering all about the set, which was replete with ledges, balconies (to which he could actually leap and haul himself), and monkey bars disguised as window mullions. At times his fidgety shtick did get distracting, as when he was supposed to be listening to others, and would have been better suppressed. Wortzel, incidentally, was the only undergraduate in a principal role on the evening we saw the opera, although in the cast that alternated during the run, Tytania was sung by junior Liv Redpath. All other major roles, and most of the orchestra, consisted of young professional musicians.

As Oberon, Douglas Dodson was a commanding presence, especially as “effective[ly] but alarming[ly]” clothed in a green tunic with twiggy bits appended (as noted, all the “humans” except in the P&T sequence were in modern dress, but the fairies were costumed in eclectic but colorful threads, Tytania as a kind of jungle princess). His voice is supple and, when in full cry, clarion-like. The trouble is that Britten wrote the part for Alfred Deller, mid-century’s leading countertenor, whose upper range by 1960 had weakened; Britten therefore kept the part in the lower range, which, to judge from Saturday’s performance, is not Dodson’s comfort zone. As an actor, Dodson was alert and properly devious in devising the traps and snares for the hapless humans and even for his Queen Tytania (with whom he was cross for having filched for her service a boy whom Oberon coveted); and then managed well the gradual transition to contrition as he saw the ignominy to which Tytania had sunk in her involuntary obsession with Bottom.

Kristin Young, the Tytania, has a voice to conjure with—her coloratura runs were thrilling—and an acting approach that ran to stately hauteur, the better to contrast with the abased gushing after Bottom, the standout, Evan Ross. His rich bass-baritone voice and a manic acting style reminded one of James Corden. Of the “mechanicals,” both outside and within the P&T sequence, in which he was Pyramus, Ross was pre-eminent. Leslie Tay as Flute/Thisby (the latter in unsettlingly convincing drag) was winsome; Daud Alzayer as Snug/Lion gave good account of his role, as did Roland Mills as Snout/The Wall (good physical humor there) and Barratt Park as Starveling/Moonshine. While their roles as peasant louts didn’t afford much range for vocal fireworks, thanks to Britten’s setting, those within the P&T mock-opera all showed off fine voices. Anthony Garza, as Peter Quince, the “director” of Pyramus and Thisby, displayed persuasive exasperation with his cast, but despite being billed as a bass-baritone, he seemed ill at ease at the low end of his part and didn’t project well; maybe it was just an off night.

The principal sets of lovers were all pleasurable to hear and see. Collier, a tenor, had fine tone, good projection and superior diction; Thea Lobo as Hermia, valiantly persevering with her hand in a cast (the show must go on!), was also vocally adroit, with perhaps a wider vibrato than suits our taste, and charmingly befuddled by her inexplicable rejection by both lover and friend. Henry-Moreland was forceful and resonant as Demetrius and, as rendered in the redacted text, was a convincing bro jerk until all was set right in the end. As Helena, Aliana de la Guardia trod a difficult path well, with a supple and shapely vocal instrument, as the masochistically devoted love-slave to Demetrius and the indignant put-upon victim of what she assumed was a mocking onslaught by the bedrugged Lysander. In the now highly truncated roles of Duke Theseus and Duchess Hippolyta, Ari Nieh and Anne Byrne were dignified of demeanor and vocally effective.

The orchestra, under Yankovskaya, played with competence and efficiency if not always the subtlest of phrasing, and was fully on board with the technical challenges of Britten’s scoring—in fact, the best elements of their performance were those involving his unusual sonic effects. The positioning of the orchestra at floor level did upset the ideal balance between vocal and instrumental forces, notwithstanding the use of sound deflectors in front of the orchestra. While traditions take on outsized prominence at places like Harvard, there are now other venues on campus that might be more suitable to groups like LHO that offer higher than college-quality performances.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.


9 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Boston Lyric Opera performed Midsummer in 2011.

    Comment by Jessica — April 9, 2013 at 8:19 am

  2. Ha! Thanks for the information. Just further proof, if any were needed, that the memory is the second thing to go.

    Comment by Vance Koven — April 9, 2013 at 10:03 am

  3. A stellar BMInt reviewer, Cashman Kerr Price, was a cellist with this production. This also-stellar review (what else, from Vance Koven?) is fun and full of pungent observations. One does wonder, as this Lowell House production opened on March 27 (a performance we saw), why it took BMInt so long to get it reviewed — as it was closing?

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — April 9, 2013 at 10:29 am

  4. I had to read the following sentence about 12 times before I could parse it. “It is not infrequently performed in the UK, but not as much in the US.” A tangle of nots.

    Anyway, the NEC performances (one of which I saw) were in 1999, not 20 years ago. A quick bit of research (confirming vague memories) shows that BU’s Opera Institute did this in 2003, Tanglewood Music Center in 2004, Boston Conservatory in 2006, and, yes, BLO in 2011. That’s not so not frequent, although I agree with some the of reservations expressed about the show in this review, which I think helps explain why it’s not performed even more often. (The idea of setting Shakespeare’s verse, even adapted, to operatic style is problematic in itself.) As is the case with “Albert Herring,” this work lends itself well to student productions because of the wide variety of roles, but the lack of signature leading roles probably hurts it with the bigger houses.

    As far as I can tell, the Met’s most recent performance was in 2002, but there’s a production coming in October (surely related to the anniversary).

    Comment by Michael Monroe — April 11, 2013 at 9:44 am

  5. How’s this? “It is regularly performed in the UK, but not as often in the US.”

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — April 11, 2013 at 10:19 am

  6. That’s not unclear! Thanks. And let me add, as I should have above, that I did enjoy this review and agree that it is full of “fun and full of pungent observations.”

    Comment by Michael Monroe — April 11, 2013 at 11:11 am

  7. Glad Michael liked the review- but did he really need to re-read the “offending” sentence 12 times?

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — April 11, 2013 at 11:29 am

  8. Perhaps I’m admitting to my own interpretive failing, but I definitely read it multiple times (at least half a dozen) assuming it was a mistake; for my eyes/ears, the double negative itself isn’t such a big deal. I can understand that there’s a stylishly subtle shade of difference between saying “not infrequently” and “frequently.” But then to negate “not infrequently” with another “not” did throw me.

    Yes, I knew what he was trying to say because it would’ve been bizarre if the US saw more frequent performances, but “not as much in the US” read to me intuitively as “not as infrequently performed in the US,” which would mean more frequently performed. I finally realized the structure insists on a reading of “but not not as infrequently performed” which is almost as unwieldy as this comment. In fact, I think the technically correct reading would have to be: “but not not as infrequently performed as much in the US.” So, yes, it did take awhile to make logical sense of that.

    Comment by Michael Monroe — April 11, 2013 at 1:56 pm

  9. Getting back to the students…This was indeed a charming & lively interpretation. Some of my favorite bits: The eerie opening music made sense when staged as the accompaniment to an actual dream, of the student/Puck-to-be. It was a nice conceit to have the fairies dressed in their pajamas (night creatures in their night clothes). Adding to the praise for the performers mentioned, I heard some lovely singing from Patrick Daily, the cover Oberon. The students’ production, plus the earlier BLO one, made me want to know the music better. A nice surprise – you can hear Britten himself conducting, on a London CD set.

    Comment by LoisL — April 11, 2013 at 3:07 pm

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