Good things come to those who wait. One can only imagine Scottish Opera’s scale of disappointment with a big opera in final rehearsals being dashed by lockdown only two weeks from opening. We were promised that the production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was not lost, but could a new opening night, with an almost total recast of singers, have been more keenly anticipated? Two years on, for us in the (masked) audience, it was incredibly exciting to be back in the big theatre and to be sitting next to each other again. 

Catriona Hewitson (Tytania) and Lawrence Zazzo (Oberon)
© James Glossop

Benjamin Britten’s opera, written for the opening of Aldeburgh’s Jubilee Hall in 1960, condenses Shakespeare’s tale of the mortals of the Athenian court, the fairies of the enchanted forest and knockabout tradesmen into a beguiling mixture of contrasts. Setting the opera in the 1920s, director Dominic Hill brought a dark, otherworldly edge to the fairy kingdom in Tom Piper’s surreal picture-framed boxed set with translucent walls, flying bedsteads and random chairs both on the ground and airborne, all spectacularly lit by Lizzie Powell. His fairies were grubby Dickensian street children in dirty grey raggedy clothes with ash-streaked hair, the changeling boy a creepily sinister toddler puppet. The initial snow was a surprise, the result of Tytania and Oberon’s quarrel. The mischievous fairies have fun pelting Puck, who nimbly dodged most snowballs. The mortals were all in bedtime clothes, the usual place for dreams, with the mechanicals in down-to-earth workaday attire.

Hill has a record of inspiring Shakespeare productions at Dundee Rep and now at the Citizens Theatre, his physical theatre here injecting a sparkling charge of energy into the opera world. This production never flagged throughout with playful touches peppering the action, including a mattress held up by Puck to separate the warring mortals, a tiny fairy shooing the scene changers along and some deft illusions devised by John Conway. Hill achieved a fine balance of serious magic, ruined and repaired relationships, the high comedy of Bottom’s enchantment, and the play within the play.

Jonathan McGovern (Demetrius) and Charlie Drummond (Helena)
© James Glossop

Musically this was finely sung throughout. American Lawrence Zazzo is an internationally experienced Oberon, his pure countertenor confidently carrying ethereal shudder, while Scottish Opera Emerging Artist Catriona Hewitson’s Tytania dramatically seized Britten’s tricky sweeping coloratura. The children’s choir was pinpoint accurate and clear, the four principal fairies excellently sung with some playful stagework thrown in.

The Athenians were vocally well balanced but with strong individual characters. Elgan Llŷr Thomas was an intrepid Lysander opposite Charlie Drummond's strongminded Helena. Lea Shaw made a sensitive Hermia and Jonathan McGovern a wonderfully confused Demetrius. The healing quartet as they emerged from sleep, their clothes now streaked with dirt from their overnight adventures, was a magical highlight.

John Molloy’s Quince led the mechanicals, desperately trying to keep order as parts for Pyramus and Thisbe were allocated. Again, Hill’s direction encouraged characterisation. The ensemble of Glen Cunningham’s Flute, Dingle Yandell’s Snug, Arthur Bruce’s Starveling and Jamie MacDougal’s hip-flasked Snout drew plenty of laughter from the audience. Vibrantly sung, David Shipley’s Bottom crafted his role superbly, dominating the amateur theatrical group and with his ass’s head, seriously amusing as Tytania’s mistaken love.

Catriona Hewitson (Tytania)
© James Glossop

With festoon lighting rigged and the lovers united, we ended back in Athens, the men cleanly scrubbed up in military uniform as the players took to the stage. Jonathan Lemalu's gravel-voiced Theseus and Annie Reilly's brightly sung Hippolyta were gracious hosts, and there was plenty of well-done nonsense and jollity. 

Michael Guest (Puck)
© James Glossop

In the pit, Stuart Stratford began so quietly I almost missed the opening glissandos, but he went on to draw wonderful contrasts from his players. Completely at one with the singers, he clearly relished Britten’s challenging mercurial music – by turns moodily ethereal, regal and playful. The sheer energy emerging from the performance was due to the brilliant ensemble work right across the piece. Kally Lloyd-Jones keeping the movement lively, fluid and terrifically danced. Michael Guest’s sparklingly acrobatic "here, there and everywhere" Puck was tremendous, scoffing dry cornflakes when bored and leaping to his next task with witty asides.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an ambitious opera for any company, but Scottish Opera gets everything right in this hugely enjoyable production.

*****