Iford’s 2016 opera season has more than nodded to Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary, first opening with Verdi's Macbeth, and now turning finally to an operatic reworking of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Director Tim Nelson, also conducting the mellifluous Early Opera Company Orchestra, has created a new performing edition of Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, which picks out the most familiar scenes and divides them into four “Nights” (the Mechanicals’ rehearsal, Oberon and Titania’s quarrel, the human lovers’ confusion, and the Mechanicals’ play), framed by a Prologue and Epilogue.
Hence, the humble shift from “The” to “A” Fairy Queen. Lines from elsewhere in Shakespeare (I think I heard scraps from The Tempest, Hamlet, Twelfth Night, and Antony and Cleopatra) sprinkle a little extra fairy dust over the proceedings; John Donne’s poetry even makes a surprise cameo. Amid these clever allusions and additions, Theseus and Hippolyta have been excised (perhaps so that Oberon and Titania can steal their best lines), and we never get to see the four lovers reconciling. Rather than becoming streamlined by these omissions, the opera can feel a little unbalanced and, even more surprisingly for such a familiar work, lack a sense of overall direction.
However, the vibrancy, intellectual intricacy, and joyous creativity of Nelson’s vision cannot be faulted, and the production constantly gathers pace and conviction. Purcell’s music is not only exquisite, but here is wielded skilfully across every scene, each aria well integrated into the action, from ecstatic outpourings of love to Dowland-like waves of languid sorrow; the switching from speech to song becomes progressively more fluid (and feels less and less contrived) as time goes on, and naturally for this piece, humour is never far away.
Iford’s production showcases a noticeably talented cast, ably supported by an ensemble drawn from Iford’s New Generation Artist Programme: Keith Pun, Cally Youdell, Ben Smith and Daniel D’Souza. A deceptively simple set by takis became progressively more and more visually fascinating through the evening, beginning in a translucent silver cube which is soon roughly torn down by the rumbustious fairies, who find a magical dressing up box with which to alter their identities, wearing strong colours as mortals, reverting to the fairy realm in sparkling white and silver with touches of feathers and glitter.
Titania is magnificent in an iridescent full-length gown with tousled white wig. Later, four iron bedsteads lurch against the central well at drunken angles as the lovers hop in and out of bed with each other; when Demetrius memorably tries to pull himself together by singing a fine aria underneath a real, working cold shower, the others resignedly hoist red umbrellas. Nature, as green plants, drifting autumn leaves, or even dawning sunshine, makes several pleasing appearances on stage. The cloister's pillars are clothed in crumpled silver brimming with fairy lights, part of an ambitious and nimbly effective lighting design by Christopher Nairne which mixes electric light with candles to play with both the texture and colour of different kinds of light.
Jake Arditti is outstanding as Oberon, overflowing with vengeful anger and frustrated passion before learning the value of true love. Arditti's superb countertenor and mastery of this music make for a compelling portrayal, especially when combined with such unnervingly good acting at close quarters. Frederick Long's luscious, forensically clear bass makes for a thought-provoking and memorable Puck, an adept and intelligent sprite who may love his Fairy King but also clearly thinks for himself, deeply. Long’s sweetly self-effacing Starveling the tailor gets the finest, roundest moon costume I have ever seen. Ciara Hendrick’s sensitive acting and supple, clean mezzo make for a superbly affecting and effective Hermia, whose definite sophistication contrasts with Rose Setten’s fiery, bespectacled but ultimately more schoolgirlish Helena. Setten, however, evens the balance with her extraordinarily beautiful final aria, delivered as Snout playing a show-stealing Thisbe, much to Bottom's stunned chagrin.
Jon Stainsby takes a thoughtful, intense approach to Bottom which still gains laughs, with beautifully accurate singing: Stainsby impresses even more as Demetrius (not only in his shower scene), conveying emotional maturity as well as wonderful music. Simon Gfeller is outstanding as Lysander, not only singing with flowing energy, but delivering his spoken lines of Shakespeare with enviably fresh fluency. Lucy Page has a nicely judged combination of queenly disdain and conspiratorial wildness as Titania, singing with glorious smoothness and command. The whole ensemble's instinctively slick timing, across some dynamic choreography which even incorporates traditional stave dancing, makes for a genuinely engaging evening of visual spectacle and beautiful music: there are also prolonged moments of on-stage eroticism, which I could have happily halved, but takis’ set always gives you plenty of other things to look at.
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