Signs of birth and death – but moreso death – flash continuously through the Latvian director Viestur Kairish’s new production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which opened the Komische Oper Berlin’s 2013/14 season. They are at times oversaturated, as with the heaps of oversized teddy bears that are strewn across the stage in the first act, or with child singers in grotesque masks, a parody of old age. But the saturation of symbols also gets to something about this opera, a core that is both infantile and sort of desperate.

Tansel Akzeyben, Annelie Sophie Müller, Adela Zaharia © Iko Freese / drama-berlin.de
Tansel Akzeyben, Annelie Sophie Müller, Adela Zaharia
© Iko Freese / drama-berlin.de

What this production does beautifully is to find marriages between a sound and a kind of lighting, or the speed of a gesture, or the strangeness of an image. The curtain first rises on a mostly dark stage, and a spotlit infant, perhaps (if I recall) something swirling...? But it could be that I am recalling the opening music, which so wonderfully and gently removes your footing on solid ground, coiling your orientation around sliding strings. It is not that this music and this image match each other: rather, they find the same softness, the same suspended mystery, the same sense of a simultaneous awakening and deep slumber.

The set as a whole is walled like a cave, so that the forest, ostensibly a foreboding expanse beyond city walls, is here a natural cage that the characters seem to be drawn back to again and again. As the magical balm takes its effect, vines begin to sprout from the lovers’ bodies (there are other sproutings onstage that are even less subtle). Yet these signs of growth are counterbalanced by showers (and baths) of petals, which surely, in a forest, denotes not so much mid-summer as late fall. Thus the reverie of Shakespeare’s fantasy is constantly pierced by a knowingness about the grimness of ends and the queasiness of childhood attachment, as if it would be that much more embarrassing to leave the teddy bears unmutilated.

This is all not very interesting, and very much par for the course, in opera staging today. Luckily the singers are all quite fine, and the conductor, Kristiina Poska, is really excellent, finding a way of connecting planes of texture that make you forget the break between them. Each of her phrases has a deliberateness, a care of placement, an attention to touch, while still making the large sections distinct. Alas, it would be too much of a cliché to say that she dreams this score rather than conducting it; but for her the cliché is true.