Ed. Note: Updated to include Friday/Sunday cast.
In all operatic adaptations of Shakespeare, librettists face the precarious chore of culling from literary perfection. There will always be purists who lament omissions rather than celebrating cohesive adaptation, but this author feels that with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Benjamin Britten and partner, Peter Pears, proved more than able operatic collaborators with the Bard. By cleverly repositioning of acts, and intelligently interspersing action, Pears and Britten fashioned some highly functional musical theater. Based on the comedy from 1590, the opera, which premiered on June 11th, 1960, concerns timelessly frustrating themes of romantic miscommunication, unrequited love, and of course the magic and seeming reality of dreams.
The scenic production team apparently collaborated as well as Britten and Pears, and produced a visually arresting, and imaginative spectacular. Ghazal Hassani’s set design consisted of a proscenium border and various modular flats that were moved laterally into different positions throughout the piece, all of which were devoid of color, and looked to be intertwining ivy vines from a macro scaled “adult coloring book.” Kelly Martin’s clever and pointed uses of splashes of colored light painted the impressionable set with watercolor. About Chelsea Kerl’s abstractly stylized costumes, there will be more below.
It is impossible to consider details of production without discussing the ingenious overall design by Tara Faircloth. Her aesthetic featured an organized, and controlled chaos, with highly stylized movement from all characters. The lovers, caught in some time between 1920-1960, use a specified movement vocabulary to execute all actions from wandering through the woods to a four-person brawl, while the faeries engaged in court dance; the rustics’ Bergamasque dance was anything but courtly. Though no single moment lost control of these stipulations, the show gave an impression of losing the reins at any moment—which was very exciting to watch.
Britten opens the opera in the sonic world of haunting string portamenti and tremolos, which one comes to discover as the “transition” music, as the listener traverses the worlds of both faery and human. The initial iteration of the expository string motif expands to invite a unison faery chorus to introduce the world of Oberon and Titania, the King and Queen of the Faeries. Britten uses other-worldly qualities from the percussion instrument family primarily for the faery realm. The glockenspiel, xylophone, vibraphone, celesta, timpani, cymbals, and harp all feature prominently for these characters, in addition to woodwinds using extending techniques. This specific aesthetic is not restricted to the orchestra alone, and is in fact exemplified by Britten’s choice of vocal fach for the faeries.
The faerie children chorus from Voices Boston (who served as much more than a standard opera chorus), were all outfitted in white suits with black polka dots, and blue flapper wigs. Oberon and Titania were in silvers with the faery conceit of blue hair, but while Titania seemed to be Greek, Oberon’s suit appeared more to be a matador. While this was initially off-putting, seeing the faery nobility and the oompa-loompa servants, it became clear that it was intentional.
Oberon is not portrayed by a heroic tenor, but rather by a countertenor whose vocal quality belies the natural male human voice and creates a diversion from the expectation of the seasoned opera goer. Bryan Pollock’s Oberon was, theatrically, something to behold. It was sung with a chocolate ganache smoothness, with a sinister underlay hidden behind an alarmingly disarming smile. In his pursuit of the changeling boy, he made menacing gestures, and thinly veiled threats toward many of the faery children, and namely his slave/courier, Robin Goodfellow, which made this author cringe.
The composer cast Titania for a coloratura soprano in stratospheric range. On Thursday, the role was sung by Ruby White. While the very vision of Greek goddess,she seemed a little uncomfortable with the high-flying tessitura. She negotiated the ferociously difficult tightrope act that is Titania, but this reviewer wonders if the role isn’t slightly out of fach for White’s richer, more lyric, voice. I very much hope to be in the audience when she performs any of the “-ina’s and -etta’s” of Mozart.
It is worth noting that Puck, the other faery, is a rhythmic Sprecher interpreted by Elizabeth Valenti, a sophomore pursuing a BFA in acting, She did an admirable job at being the audience’s connection between the actions on stage and us, however, her attempt to involve us through frequent snap-and-points to the audience felt a little contrived. The near ridiculous taped on moustache did not help.
The lovers, Helena, Hermia, Lysander, and Demetrius, constitute a very traditional SATB vocal quartet, and their music is expectedly romantic and traditionally operatic. The orchestrations are lush and feature lyrical string settings, with frequent pastoral use of the woodwinds. This is most notable, and comical, when Helena begs Demetrius to love her and professes to be his “Spaniel.” The clarinet and oboe dancing in as close to 6ths as Britten could stand, reminding the listener, most intentionally, of nymphs and shepherds.
Throughout the role, Helen Hassinger (Helena, as Lucille Ball in a lime green ensemble) made elegant use of a voice that while traditionally a lighter voice than her counterparts, had no problem being heard; her acting abilities beat the band. With her luscious mezzo soprano, Emily Spencer, in a frilly pink skirt that looked as though it was dipped into a bright pink tie-dye, made an empathetic Hermia at the beginning, but when called a Puppet, she reveled fire under that endearing demeanor, when she reflected what Lysander saw in her. Lysander, played by the stentorian tenor John David Nevergall (in a preppy blue and grey zip sweater) seemed to be initially confused whether he was portraying Cavaradossi, Rodolfo, or Don Jose, but as soon as Oberon’s flower touched his eyes, he was transported to Brittenland, and so were we. Benjamin C. Taylor’s polished and sonorous baritone (nevermind the “Barney” purple zoot suit that may have been borrowed from a production of Guys and Dolls) is the stuff of operatic dreams. He had full use of vocal color and effect, and made a perfect—if not too lovable—Demetrius. Absolutely central to the conceit of the play,
All of the lovers sang accurately with attention to the markings that Britten made in the score, and a sensitivity to the text being expressed. This was especially notable in the final quartet, where the crescendo to subito piano on “Jewel” induced goosebumps.
The other subplot involves a group of rustics that are preparing a performance to present to the nobles of Athens for the wedding of Theseus (Sung by authoritative bass, Isaak Kim) and Hyppolita (Sung with the maternal warmth of Kylee Slee’s contralto.) This group is the very epitome of theatrical “bus stop theory,” with a carpenter, weaver, bellows-mender, tailor, tinker, and a joiner, attempting to present the story of Pyramus and Thisbe. This rag-tag group, as theatrically clumsy on stage as the horns and brass that fumble and plod around in the orchestra, provided the comic relief of the telenovela-esque drama of the lovers’ conundrum. While we see the rustics rehearsing their play throughout the course of the opera, the climax for them comes at the the end, where the audience (and the Athenians) see a full presentation of the play.
All the rustics, Wall (Timothy Gorka), Moonshine (Mitch FitzDaniel) Lion (Franklin Mosely), and Master of Ceremonies, Peter Quince (Jorgeandres Camargo), delivered heartwarmingly honest accounts of these men’s first amateur performance. Erik Van Heyningen as Bottom was a convincingly arrogant man’s-man, and quite the ass to faeries; Peaseblossom, Mustardseed, Cobweb, and Moth (Alexandra Salawsky Group, Denise Ward, Erika Anderson, and Marissa Plati, respectively) As Pyramus, he lacked one iota of self doubt or insecurity, and sang assuredly and robustly.
The star of the show, however, was the leading lady. Joshua Rotz embodied the most perfect combination of earnestness as Francis Flute and wilting damsel in Thisbe. He adroitly navigated the murky waters of authentic portrayal of the lady (the way that Flute would have seen it) and over the top exaggeration. In Thisbe’s passion, we hear her dying declamation, and while it seems right that we would invest in the theater of the moment, Rotz’s inspired portrayal made it a dream come true for Flute.
Excepting a few opening night jitters and some string intonation issues, William Lumpkin led a very skilled orchestra adroitly through the score, giving an impassioned reading. The manner in which each instrument group succeeded in using its different colors to articulate characterization is very much to the credit of Lumpkin.
While the initial response to the opera was critical and audience response tepid, it has very much become part of the canon, especially for schools and young artist programs, as it has many sizeable roles for performers in various levels of development. It was a good and obvious choice for performers who have the musical and dramatic skill sets of the ensemble that this reviewer witnessed on Thursday. Unlike many of the operatic warhorses where the libretto is regrettable, in MSND (and frankly, all of Britten’s output) the text and music are inextricably married, and require equal attention. With Tara Faircloth and William Lumpkin in charge, we could join them in this exposition of a dream that all operas should have a sky-high level of thought and detail, musically and theatrically, just like this one.
It is an interesting phenomenon that happens in the course of a production, be it opera or theatre, that months of tireless preparation cumulate in a first public performance. Nerves and expectations are high, as well as the anxious feeling that things would be perfect if only there were another week to smooth out transitions, or clean up this blocking, or that difficult section for the orchestra. The irony is that the published review is often written under these less-than-ideal circumstances. On Friday night, there were opening night jitters, and minor mistakes littered throughout the score, where the performers were in self preservation mode. On Sunday the performance had completely gelled from the string intonation, horn entrances, comfort of the performers, to the agility and coordination of the scene changes. It is a rarity that both casts of a show have the opportunity to be reviewed, and likewise, the reviewer to have the opportunity to see a subsequent performance. In this case, it is a shame that this show has to close, as the company had definitely found their stride by Sunday afternoon. Alas, all good things must come to an end.
Oberon was sung tonight by the countertenor, Wee-Kiat Chia. While both countertenors in this production ( Chia and Pollock) embodied the character of the Faery King, Chia somewhat did so at the cost of vocalism. In his effort to find the theatricality of the role, there were many times that Chia crashed from the resonant upper placement into his baritonal chest voice losing all sense of legato and vocal line. This was particularly jarring as it was never a seamless transition and often it appeared to be more a result of vocal discomfort rather than theatrical choice. His energy was, however electric, and had the spritely facility of a traditional Puck. While we all thank the gods that the days of “park and bark” are over, Chia could benefit from a sense of inward calm and know that there is great power in self assuredness and stillness.
Maya Kerani’s Titania had the sparkling effervescence of a fine champagne from her first utterance to the final dance. Her entrance duet with Oberon had the competitive air of vocal ping-pong as Britten intended, and from the first minute we knew that this was definitely a “faery of no common rate.” Her extended cadenza of “Come now a roundel” was technically beautiful and rhythmically literal, but if one could quibble, and this could be with Maestro Lumpkin as well, it would be with the timing and emphasis placed on musical accuracy as opposed to effect. The “aria” should feel as weightless as a faery wing, and the audience should be breathless, having no knowledge that any attention is being paid to the actual music notation by either singer or orchestra. Of course, this is purely affect, and all of Britten’s markings must be heeded, but the lullaby spell that is being cast is equally as important as the precision of the metric values. I’m sure that in the next Tytania that Ms. Kherani performs (and she will) she’ll be more comfortable with this passage, and will have us all bewitched even more than this more than fine performance.
Jesse Darden’s Lysander had a palpable sweetness of tone, and a “Clark Kent-ish” appearance that could have had him in the opera house or on the silver screen. His gentle love for Hermia was starkly contrasted by the amazement and wonderment of his infatuation with Helena after Puck’s mistake. Darden’s tenor has the flexibility to approach the piano segments of the score with aplomb, but unfortunately was covered by his scene partners and orchestra in the more dramatic moments of the opera. This begs the question of intended fach for Lysander, as he must have the dolcezza to sing Hermia to sleep, and the assertion of voice to “run through fire” for Helena. With Darden’s dulcet and Nevergall’s robust voices combined, a perfect Lysander would they make.
There are few moments when adjectives fail, and the only one that fully encompasses the brilliance of a performance is “perfect.” After many crossed out qualifiers on my notepad, and trying to find another word to describe Alexandra Rodrick’s Hermia, I have given up. Her performance, from her excitement at the prospect of marrying Lysander, to her near psychotic “puppet” arietta, Rodrick was, in a word, perfect. Her caramel coated voice had a smoothness yet authoritative manner about it, which never got lost in the texture, but also never was out of turn in volume, and her starlet appearance made a perfect match for Darden’s Lysander.
Demetrius was sung by John Allen Nelsen on Sunday afternoon, and while I still cannot get over the purple suit, Nelsen’s auburn hued voice with a uniformity from top to bottom was a pleasure to listen to. His physical performance lacked some of the attention to base theatricality that his counterparts excelled at, but his vocal performance left nothing to be desired. Though there were blatantly aggressive words thrown at Helena, the kindness in his demeanor, and the warmth of his voice undermined the mean-spirited text. It is no wonder that Helena continued to pursue him into the woods, and eventually prevailed.
Scenery-chewing soprano, Tara Deieso’s Helena was at the same time a pathetic “spaniel” and a sympathetically plausible love interest for Demetrius. With her pointed and sonorous soprano, she was a perfect vocal match for Nelsen’s Demetrius, if only she would not telegraph such desperation. The audience felt an urgency to give her some dating tips in approaching a potential mate, and collectively sank into chairs in fremdschämen (second-hand embarrassment) for how hard she was trying, and getting nowhere. Helena’s appeal to Hermia to stop the “sweet jest” had the lyricism of any leading lady, immediately and effortlessly switching to a more musical theater aesthetic for the beginning of the fight.
Contralto Te Hu performed the role of Hippolyta in this performance. Hu is a first year Diploma student, and while the voice shows major potential, it would benefit her to work on a brighter vocal position, so as to be heard over an orchestra. It was often difficult to hear Hu from the fifth row of the orchestra, especially when her Theseus (Isaac Kim on both nights) had so much amplitude. She looked beautiful in her wedding dress, but whether it was nervousness in remembering the text, or other musical issues, she seemed quite dour for this to be her wedding day, and could very easily have been performing the stage version of Lucia di Lammermoor. A few years in incubation cultivating her stagecraft and vocalism could very well afford Hu an international career.
Joseph Hubbard’s portrayal of Bottom one of the more interesting things in the show. His voice had a rich, and aggressively masculine edge to it, which fit the more blustery moments in the show for him. His performance however, ranged from disinterested participant to aloof hipster. It appeared that with the group of rustics in their various flannels, square rimmed glasses, and pageboy caps that they were likely meeting in the woods of Allston or Brooklyn as opposed to outside Athens. As the night progressed, Hubbard got more and more comfortable in his skin and eventually his donkey ears. His character and performance settled finally after his evening tryst with Tytania, in which the audience was as hot behind the ears as he was when she proclaimed “how I dote on thee.”
Now, concerning the Rustics, and the show of Pyramus and Thisbe. Shakespeare and subsequently Britten, knew what they were doing having the internal play happen at the end of the show. It is thrilling for an audience (and nerve wracking for a director) to watch a cast completely lose all abandon and recklessly play on stage. This happened on Sunday afternoon. At every turn and joke, the balcony, which I imagine to be the friends and colleagues of the cast, erupted into guffaws as if they were watching a sitcom.
After the initial introduction ensemble, which was sung with crystalline precision, the characters entered in turn. Pyramus entered and performed with a WWF wrestling swagger and ego; Thisbe, cocquettishly twirling her pig-tails, looking like she was preparing for the talent portion of a beauty pageant; Wall was not impressed with Pyramus’s changing of blocking, and sang with a quick-vibratoed constant portamento; Thin-Skinned Moon, with his adorable stuffed puppy, was wholly unable to to suffer the mocking of the nobles, but refused to abandon his attempts at singing his own name, softly, with the xylophone; Lion’s soft-shoe, high-kneed dance was anything but intimidating, but everything entertaining; all the while director Peter Quince was the very definition of pageant parent, and pantomimed each character’s action with them, so they didn’t forget the choreography, with a tension and anxiety level that could be cut with a knife.
It was wonderful to see how both of these casts were able to make subtle differences in portrayal to provide the audience with two able and well thought out readings of this score, within the confines of the same physical elements. Boston University’s Opera Institute had a true success with this production, and yet as quickly as it had opened, it is over and becomes a memory from the distant past, but one that will live on in our dreams.
If we shadows have offended, think but this and all is mended! That you have but slumbered here while these visions did appear. Gentles, do not reprehend. If you pardon, we will mend. Else the Puck a liar call, so goodnight unto you all. Give me your hands if we be friends, and Robin shall restore amend.
-Puck’s Final Monologue (abridged by Pears/Britten)