Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream is an opera swathed in a sensual, yet sinister score, conjured from a tiny ensemble where Oberon's fairy kingdom is evoked by glistening glockenspiel, celesta and harp, underpinned by slithering cello glissandi and malevolent double bass col legno stabs. Commissioned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Snape Maltings concert hall, Netia Jones' new production taps into Britten's silvery underworld in a staging dominated by video wizardry which is hypnotically beautiful, but comes at a price.

A silhouetted fairy © Hugo Glendinning
A silhouetted fairy
© Hugo Glendinning

Fairy spotlights flash through a dappled argent backdrop as top-hatted fairies, sporting Andy Warhol-like blonde hair and tiny round sunglasses, streak across the stage. Rustling leaves, shot through with shafts of sunlight, place us in a woodland where danger lurks. When Oberon sings “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows”, a writhing grass snake coils, signalling the deceit the fairy king is plotting against his queen, Tytania. Petals unfurl as the lovers succumb to the love potion applied – or misapplied – by Puck, and a spider's web is strung with pearls of dew. Cogs and levers whirr in close-up as the Rude Mechanicals, Victorian labourers, meet to rehearse their play “most obscenely”. It's all very literal, but an absorbing backdrop nevertheless.

Iestyn Davies (Oberon) © Hugo Glendinning
Iestyn Davies (Oberon)
© Hugo Glendinning

Iestyn Davies' Oberon camouflages himself in this mottled fairy kingdom, but this does mean that singers' faces are frequently lost, and herein lies the problem with Jones' production. Because it relies so heavily on its projections (barely any stage props are required other than a swing, a handcart and a bicycle), the lighting is required to remain low for long stretches. Therefore, we miss many of the facial expressions which, particularly in the comic interplay of the four lovers, robs both audience and hard-working singers. The faux proscenium arch is also a problem, dampening the usually splendid acoustic, meaning that diction – even from these excellent singers – was foggy. There were no surtitles, but they were necessary here for those who didn't know their Shakespeare.

The assembled cast was truly terrific, headed by Davies' icy-toned, severe Oberon, dazzling with the sheer purity of his countertenor. Sophie Bevan was his perfect foil, silvery glints to her soprano, but a much riper, sexier sound than most Tytanias. Jack Lansbury's acrobatic Puck somersaulted across the stage, sometimes in competition with his silhouetted self, animated on Jones' silver screen. The four lovers, kitted out in country house tweeds and tartans, squabbled and bickered to good effect, led by Clare Presland's blazing Hermia, her warm mezzo rising to full scorn when she was insulted by Eleanor Dennis' lofty Helena.

George Humphreys (Demetrius) and Eleanor Dennis (Helena) © Hugo Glendinning
George Humphreys (Demetrius) and Eleanor Dennis (Helena)
© Hugo Glendinning

Hanging hooks and chains were constant reminders of the building's original purpose as a malt house. The six Mechanicals were played pretty straight, with little resort to slapstick. This worked especially well for Matthew Rose's Bottom, whose dry humour, even when adorned with donkey ears sprouting from his bowler hat, was wonderfully understated. Rose sang gloriously, his bass roaring and purring by turns, emitting an orgasmic yawn as Tytania entwined him in her arms. Andrew Shore's gloriously bumptious Peter Quince and Sion Goronwy's rumbling Snug (constantly munching from his tuck box) were neatly characterised. The Pyramus and Thisby skit was crowned by Lawrence Wiliford's terrific Francis Flute, done up in a frock and hairstyle that made him look uncannily like Dame Felicity Lott in her prime. Full of fabulous bel canto histrionics, Wiliford's Thisby seized his moment like the grandest of divas.  

Matthew Rose (Bottom) leads the Mechanicals © Hugo Glendinning
Matthew Rose (Bottom) leads the Mechanicals
© Hugo Glendinning

Ryan Wigglesworth conducted the Aldeburgh Festival Orchestra with great sensitivity, drawing every ethereal shimmer from Britten's enchanting score. With the boys of Chelmsford Cathedral Choir in splendid form, the “Now until the break of day” finale – which always has me blubbing – worked its magic.  

Mark's press trip to Snape was sponsored by RDMR