From the opening glissandos of Britten's opera, we know this is not Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Where the Mendelssohn / Balanchine ballet is romantic, dreamy and reminiscent of an illustrated fairytale, Britten's opera borders on the nightmarish and eerie. Boston Lyric Opera's production highlights the disorienting, ominous and chilling aspects, leading us (quite willingly) ever deeper into the woods. While we are rewarded with a comical, operatic send-up at the end, we can't help but hope that the fairies of Athens are not inclined to visit our own gardens. Like a recurring dream that hits a nerve and leaves us wondering, Britten's Dream gives the audience much to think about long after the lights come up.

© Erik Jacobs for Boston Lyric Opera, 2011
© Erik Jacobs for Boston Lyric Opera, 2011

The libretto is adapted from Shakespeare by Britten and Peter Pears. It's sung in English, with language that closely follows the play. The tone is set by a choir of fairy children whose sweet voices have an unsettling quality. They are quickly followed by their king and queen, Oberon and Tytania, who are quarreling over a changeling boy. Tytania has claimed him for her own (he is the orphaned son of one of her followers), while Oberon desires him as a “henchman.” They part and Oberon hatches a plan with Puck involving a blossom that causes both mortals and fairies to fall in love with the next creature they see. Into this drama, Lysander and Hermia stumble. They are fleeing Athens and Hermia's father who is forcing her to marry Demetrius. Demetrius, in turn, has followed her into the woods, shunning his previous love, Helena. Not to be left out, Helena follows Demetrius. Oberon observes Demetrius and Helena and sends Puck to use the magical blossom on Demetrius before going to Tytania. Puck instead finds Lysander, who wakes to see Helena. Lysander is now in love with Helena, Demetrius is still in love with Hermia. Both women are confused and unhappy. As the four lovers dash off, a group of (very) amateur actors arrives to rehearse Pyramus and Thisbe, which they plan to perform for Theseus and Hippolyta at their wedding. During their rehearsal, Puck, who has already visited Tytania in her sleep, changes Nick Bottom (the rustic playing Pyramus) into a half-donkey. Bottom's singing/braying wakes Tytania, who falls in love with him. Pleased with their work, Oberon sends Puck to straighten out the Helena/Hermia confusion. Conjuring a mist, he lulls all four to sleep and sets them up for a pleasant awakening with their respective loves. Tytania's awakening is not as pleasant, as Oberon has lifted the spell and she sees what manner of beast she's fallen in love with. The two reconcile. The rustics perform their play for Theseus and Hippolyta. Everyone is married and goes off to sleep and dream.

Before the performance began, my friend asked what a countertenor (Oberon) is. I explained the high vocal range and told her that when I play recordings at home, my husband doesn't believe it's a man singing. Neither of us imagined King Oberon with a high voice, but when he sings it is hard to imagine him sounding any other way. He's ethereally well-matched to his coloratura Queen, Tytania. Bright yet chilling child fairies complete the realm.

My puzzling mind had much to sort out in the imagery of the set. Part Victorian, part surrealist, it was never the same twice. Once I remembered that it is a dream, I enjoyed watching the world of mortals and immortals shift and transform. The creative team of John Conklin (sets), Kaye Voyce (costumes), Robert Wierzel (lights) and director Tazewell Thompson created a mix of visuals that wove in and out of realms and dreams, perfect for the atmospheric score.

The rustics' performance of Pyramus and Thisbe brought the audience out of its collective, hypnotic state with many laugh-out-loud moments. A play on a play, it is full of physical comedy and what is presented as unintentional humor. Met regular Susanna Phillips was a comic Helena to Matthew Worth's Demetrius. John Gaston made his BLO debut as the countertenor Oberon. Andrew Shore was delightful as Bottom and the splendid fairy children came from PALS Children's Chorus. At the end of the night we are left with the sweetness of love and the purity of the voice – and the understanding that everything will change again in the twinkling of an eye.