Neil Armfield’s enchanting production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream arrived at the Festival Theatre in Adelaide – as the centrepiece of the Adelaide Festival – over ten years after its success in northern America but in time for some, if not all, of the city’s covid restriction to be relaxed. It says much for the production and its performance, dramatically and musically, that, after a short period of discomfort and fogged glasses, one forgot that one was wearing a mask.

Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen (Oberon) and Rachelle Durkin (Tytania)
© Tony Lewis

The opera itself is some 60 years old, premiering under sparse conditions in Aldeburgh's Jubilee Hall and, for those who can get past Verdi, it is possibly the most successful transposition of Shakespeare to the lyric stage. It has enjoyed continual if selective exposure since then, with two previous productions in Australia, a well-received one in 1978 directed by the recently deceased Elijah Moshinsky, and a production by Baz Luhrmann for Opera Australia in 1993, set in the Raj. While mostly it has stood the test of time, one has to wonder about the central plot device: decidedly Caucasian fairies arguing over who is to possess an orphaned brown child. At least, in this version, while Oberon wins, he and Tytania seem to end up sharing him equably and parentally.

Warwick Fyfe (Bottom) and Rachelle Durkin (Tytania)
© Tony Lewis

Armfield’s version concentrates on the magic and lyricism of the work, and particularly the rollicking humour of Act 3, which had the audience laughing more than they probably would for the straight Shakespeare version. The delightful and effective set comprised an enclosing green scrim with outlined trees, birds and large insects, behind which shadowy figures occasionally flitted up and down. A large green canopy hung suspended in the air, moving up and down in time with events and movements, only occasionally seeming distracting. The costumes were equally stunning, Tytania and Oberon being tall, bird-like but elegant creatures in towering plumes and clawed hands, the little fairies in sparkly beige body suits, white wings and tiny gauzy wings. The Athenian lovers wore 1950s outfits, Hermia in a checked shirtwaister frock and Helena in candy striped shirt over pink pedal pushers. The rustics were a bunch of daggy dads and tradies and, in the last act, Theseus and Hippolyta are regaled in elegant 20th-century eveningwear, as are the lovers.

James Clayton (Demetrius) and Leanne Kenneally (Helena)
© Tony Lewis

Puck, a non-singing role, was played with prodigious energy by multi-talented Indigenous (Nyikina) performer Mark Coles Smith in white body paint. Musically, there was little need for complaint. The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra under Britten specialist Paul Kildea (he also conducted the Luhrmann version in Brisbane in 2012) dealt with the varied and opulent score with sensitivity and panache. The Young Adelaide Voices, directed by Christie Anderson, were quite miraculous as the fairies, some being alarmingly tiny. Mention should be made of the young but impeccably professional fairy soloists: Eliza Brill Read (Cobweb), Luca Shin (Peaseblossom),  Daniel Milton (Mustardseed), and Jonathan Siow (Moth).

The vocal casting was excellent, with nearly all the singers being Australian. The notable exception was rising American countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen as Oberon. He spent most of his time on stage actually swaying above it, on a suspended platform. He emitted very warm, rounded and accurate tone, although in his brief spell actually on the ground his voice was less clearly defined. Rachelle Durkin, a Perth soprano just back from some years in the States, is always a powerhouse performer, with lots of volume if not the most precise of vocalising, and looked an absolute treat. The Athenians comprised mezzo Sally-Anne Russell, originally from Adelaide but now based in Melbourne, equally at home on the stage and possessor of a well-formed mezzo voice and evidently relishing the role of the (at times) demented Hermia. Her well-matched opponent in love, Brisbane soprano Leanne Kenneally, also turned in a convincing performance as Helena. Their love interests were well sung and acted by tenor Andrew Goodwin (Lysander) and baritone James Clayton (Demetrius).

Warwick Fyfe (Bottom/Pyramus) and Norbert Hohl (Snout/Wall)
© Tony Lewis

The rustics were led by Opera Australia stalwart baritone Warwick Fyfe, totally unrecognisable and displaying an unsuspected talent for knockabout comedy. His Bottom was a marvel of comic timing, while singing with resonant beauty mixed with hilarious hee-hawing. The rest were made up of Adelaide favourites all contributing to the fun, Douglas McNicol as Quince, Pelham Andrews as Snug, Jeremy Tatchel as Starveling with Norbert Hohl as Snout and especially Louis Hurley as Flute, hilarious as Tisbe in the Donizettian parody. For the finale, Theseus and Tytania were luxury casting, comprising New Zealander Terry Tahu Rhodes and Perth’s Fiona Campbell, sounding sumptuous after some time away from the stage. The final curtain was greeted with warm and enthusiastic applause, a sure-fire hit in these difficult times.