Philadelphia is a city of firsts, among them America's first zoo, hospital, botanical garden, commercial ice cream, and computer. Now we can add that, thanks to Opera Philadelphia, we are the first in America to present Robert Carsen's world-renowned 1991 conception of Benjamin Britten's 1960 opera A Midsummer Night's Dream. Yet I must confess: when I first saw photos and read descriptions of this Dream, acclaimed and adored in countless opera houses since its premiere at the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, my first reaction was skepticism. Those garish colors, that gigantic bed, the apparent lack of forest, the sort-of-20th-century garb... Yet another contrived, irritating version of an opera!

The fairies with Oberon (Tim Mead) and Tytania (Anna Christy) © Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia
The fairies with Oberon (Tim Mead) and Tytania (Anna Christy)
© Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia

I have seen the opera twice before, but so long ago, this might as well have been the first time. I took my seat in Philadelphia's sumptuous 1857 Academy of Music and heard the music, which opens like a delicate take on Rheingold, quickly becoming sprightly (or in this case, sprite-ly?), putting my ears, at least, in the right mood. Then I saw the dark night sky with crescent moon, the stage-size bed with green blanket (for all to walk on} and immense white pillows (for all to fling themselves on), and the fairies! 22 members of the Philadelphia Boys Choir stood in matching bright-green tails – that is, tuxedos – and dark-blue trousers and hair, all holding their lapels with red gloves, like colorful mini-footmen from Downton Abbey. Their palette of grass and night sky was repeated in the green pajamas and dressing gown of Oberon, the Fairy King, and the deep-blue short négligée of his Queen, Tytania; the cloth around the Changling Boy, an infant in her arms, was a startling spot of red, like the fairies' gloves.

Tim Mead (Oberon) and Miltos Yerolemou (Puck) © Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia
Tim Mead (Oberon) and Miltos Yerolemou (Puck)
© Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia

I was hooked! What a treat to see bright colors after decades of drab, dreary ugliness on opera stages! I enjoyed myself immensely, chuckling, chortling and laughing out loud, along with most of the audience. One burst of laughter that could only have happened in these times: from all over the theater, at the first mention of the wall... and in the rustics' play itself, when the wall appeared. Shakespeare would have loved it!

Michael Levine's costumes embody the personalities and stations of the personages; his sets enable and reflect the non-stop action, which is right there in Shakespeare's brilliant text: puns, wordplays, witty banter, very human conversation and uncountable circumstances. In fact, the libretto, by Britten and the great English tenor Peter Pears, is pure Shakespeare except for six words of Lysander to Hermia, “compelling thee to marry with Demetrius”.

Georgia Jarman, Johnathan McCullough, Siena Licht Miller and Brenton Ryan © Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia
Georgia Jarman, Johnathan McCullough, Siena Licht Miller and Brenton Ryan
© Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia

Britten's instrumental music is subtly woven into events: celesta and two harps are often used for specific emotional moments, quick fanfares for several comings and goings, and specific music for each category of people. His skill in word-painting is also evident, as a drawn-out melisma for Tytania on “stretched”, a gentle lullaby, and amusing settings of nearly every word of the rustics. There are two fine arias, Oberon's “I know a bank where the wild thyme grows” and Tytania's admonition to four fairies concerning Bottom: “Be kind and courteous to this gentleman.” If the score seems lightweight, it should be noted that it was written for a 300-seat theater; the orchestra was enlarged to fifty musicians for the Academy of Music's 2509 seats.

Without exception, the cast possessed excellent voices and outstanding vocal and acting skills. As Oberon, countertenor Tim Mead's voice was pure yet expressive, his portrayal noble; soprano Anna Christy was a sexy Tytania, singing as if the music were easy. The predicaments of the two beleaguered couples can seem (and often are) plain silly, but all four Athenians, while constantly dashing on and off (wearing ever-fewer of their white clothes, at one point grass-stained) and often very funny, projected identifiable personalities. Lysander and Hermia (tenor Brenton Ryan and mezzo Siena Licht Miller) showed both passion and tenderness; both women projected justifiable bewilderment, anger and hurt, especially Helena (Georgia Jarman) with both Demetrius (baritone Johnathan McCullough) and Lysander.

Matthew Rose (Bottom) and Anna Christy (Tytania) © Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia
Matthew Rose (Bottom) and Anna Christy (Tytania)
© Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia

Every singer playing a rustic was that character in voice and personality, but the superstar was bass Matthew Rose, who has performed Bottom a dozen times. He struck the ideal balance between attention-seeking, pompous – well, ass – and guy you can't help loving in spite of that. And what a mellifluous voice!

Despite the brevity of their roles as Theseus and Hippolyta in the final scene, baritone Evan Hughes' nobility of interpretation and rich-toned voice and soprano Allyson McHardy's elegance of both mien and vocalism made a great impact.

Britten made Puck a speaking role. Since 2008 Miltos Yerolemou has been Carsen's Puck, a chunky, scruffy little guy all but bouncing off the walls (he is a trained tumbler), with a distinctive voice and a face and eyes that speak as well,

Four essential (bowler) hats off: to Emmanuelle Bastet, revival director, who has worked with Carsen since this Dream was born; choreographer Matthew Bourne, also a veteran, and Shelby Williams, revival choreographer; and Opera Philadelphia's Music Director, Corrado Rovaris, who conducted, as always, with sensitivity, strong musicianship, and a profound understanding of the composer.

*****