Britten’s only Shakespeare opera was a last-minute commission to celebrate the opening of the refurbished Jubilee Hall at the 1960 Aldeburgh Festival. Despite the narrow timescale, Britten and his collaborator and partner Peter Pears notoriously strove to adhere to the sixteen-century dramatic text as closely as possible. Only a handful of Shakespeare’s original lines were substantially modified. However, to avoid excessive length, Britten removed the play’s entire first act, set in Athens. As a result, in the opera Shakespeare’s ‘dream’, played out in the enchanted wood, is no longer framed within two ‘real’ sequences at Theseus’ palace. Instead, we’re confronted by an ‘unreal’ world from the outset: this midsummer night’s dream – Britten seems to imply – has already begun.

Alexander Knox (Puck) in GSMD's A Midsummer Night's Dream, © Clive Barda
Alexander Knox (Puck) in GSMD's A Midsummer Night's Dream,
© Clive Barda

In this production, by students of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama directed by Martin Lloyd-Evans, the circularity of Shakespeare’s play is in part reinstated. Our dreamy trip both begins and ends in wartime, in a shabby hospital room that feels secluded from the outside world, surrounded by crumbling walls and tall, opaque windows. This looks like a disturbingly empty space; all patients seem to be missing from their beds (though they are in fact concealed underneath them). The first living presence to enter this unsettling realm is Puck. In Lloyd-Evans’ reading, Shakespeare’s mischievous sprite (acted by Alexander Knox) is an elderly wheelchair-bound man. He enters from stage right, slowly dragging himself along, while Britten’s uncanny glissandi set about creating the opera’s magic atmosphere. ‘Was it all Puck’s dream?’, we’ll find ourselves wondering at the end. For though he begins and ends confined to his wheelchair, throughout the rest of the opera Britten’s music rejuvenates him, giving him back his youth.

In accordance with Shakespeare’s and Britten/Pears’ indications, the rest of this production is set in a wood. Some very tall, straight tree trunks, taking on varying shades as the lights shift from whites to oranges to greens, create an intriguing ambience for the display of magic powers. Under these shifting hues, Oberon’s magic flower spreads chaos in both the mortal and immortal worlds, its spellbinding power symbolised by vision-distorting green glasses. In the end, all confusion is dispelled, providing the occasion for each couple to celebrate their love. Yet amid the high spirits we’re left with a discordant note – Puck’s return to the wheelchair in the decaying hospital ward.

Britten’s Dream is an opera that requires careful coordination between pit and stage. Orchestral colours are so closely bound up with the various characters, instrumental entries so often linked to stage action, that the slightest misalignment can be immediately picked up by the audience. The orchestra and singers of this Guildhall performance did well in this respect, although there is room for improvement. In the main fairy roles, Tom Verney (Oberon) and Eleanor Laugharne (Tytania) achieved a delightful combination of disquieting vocal purity (Oberon’s countertenor recalls both the eighteenth-century castrato and the English cathedral tradition) and operatic sensuality. The two pairs of human lovers – Stuart Laing (Lysander) and Kathryn McAdam (Hermia), Ashley Riches (Demetrius) and Sky Ingram (Helena) – also sang excellently throughout, showing both vocal control and dramatic energy. Riches, in particular, distinguished himself by his resonant voice. Among the ‘mechanicals’, the most impressive performance came from Barnaby Rea (Bottom), who was much acclaimed by the audience. He sang his part with extreme assurance and provided the liveliest source of comedy. Last, but not least, came the speaking character of Puck, acted splendidly by Knox, and the Chorus of Fairies, admirable for their vocal accuracy and spirited presence.

The orchestra, led by Stephen Barlow, provided numerous moments of sheer sonic beauty, particularly in those passages featuring the return of Britten’s eerie opening theme. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is, after all, also an opera about the beguiling power of music, a power which, even far from the magic of a summer’s night, may blur the line between dreamland and the waking world.

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