The Grange Festival opened with Britten's magical midsummer score, in an intelligently detailed and involving production by Paul Curran, on an effective single set. It was initially without two of its key elements – Bottom, and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. The latter was owing to the BSO’s understandable reluctance to crowd young unvaccinated players into a small pit for two hours, and risk the whole show falling prey to the pandemic. So the orchestral score was recorded by the BSO, and the digital files played during the performance, conductor Anthony Kraus co-ordinating pit and stage, but with no control over the dynamics, tempi or phrasing of the band, those being fixed by Sian Edwards when she conducted the recording.

Alexander Chance (Oberon) and Chris Darmanin (Puck)
© Simon Annand

This worked surprisingly well, although recorded sound cannot match the colours or spontaneity of live instrumentalists. This was felt most at climaxes, when the digital recording hardened rather than blossomed. Poor Puck (an athletic Chis Darmanin) must have missed interacting with his live trumpet and tabor. The Dream has a “tiny orchestra” (Britten’s phrase), so it was disappointing there had to be recourse to this solution, to be used also in the Rossini and Puccini works to follow. Still, Kraus coped admirably, keeping his onstage charges together with the soundtrack, with many an alert cue.

Henry Waddington (Bottom)
© Simon Annand

Bottom was to have been the indisposed James Platt, but Henry Waddington – at the Festival to perform in King Lear – stepped in to reprise a familiar role. Shakespeare does not tell us if Bottom did get his “sixpence a day” for playing Pyramus, but Waddington deserved it, a natural leader, firm-voiced and funny. So too were his fellow amateur players, not least in their final “tedious, brief scene” of Pyramus and Thisbe. Oberon and Tytania were charismatic rulers of the spirit world, Alexander Chance’s pure countertenor and clear diction creating an authoritative “Captain of this fairy band”, while Samantha Clarke’s clean coloratura made her an alluring consort. Her “Come, now a roundel” was, as it must be, an enchantment. Her six fairies were most able attendants, in gesture, movement and singing. When Bottom called for the “tongs and the bones” they took up their sopranino recorders, antique cymbals and woodblocks to give us the only live instrumental music of the evening.

Alexander Chance (Oberon), Eleanor Dennis (Helena) and Angela Simkin (Hermia)
© Simon Annand

Our four lovers, Angela Simkin (Hermia), Eleanor Dennis (Helena), Peter Kirk (Lysander) and Alex Otterburn (Demetrius), swapped and squabbled convincingly – “Lord, what fools these mortals be” – and all four sang convincingly too, individually and as a quartet. What a boon to such fine young singers an intimate auditorium like the Grange is, allowing them to display nuance and characterisation lost in larger venues. They were costumed (Gabriella Ingram) in quasi-contemporary, even glamorous manner, stripping to their underwear for the end of Act 2... so more Love Island than Ancient Athens. No wonder Puck “mistook” his target when told “You shall know him by the Athenian garments he has on”.

Act 3 was balm for our times. Ass’ head removed, concord restored between both Fairy King and Queen and among the lovers, a return to court at Athens, weddings and those hilarious am-dram celebrations. It seemed a supreme return to normality that, after the fairies’ exquisite final chorus and Puck’s offer to “restore amends”, the opera's finale sent us out into the persistent midsummer rain.