Here is a near-ideal combination of opera, company and venue. First, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a work with several sizeable roles, but no dominant leading character (though the plot is driven by Oberon), so offers multiple opportunities for a group of young singers. All opera needs teamwork, but here the interaction between characters – increasingly muddled as they become – is crucial. Second, the Silk Street Theatre is an ideal size for the work, its steep rake and deep pit in which hide the instrumentalists, affords a remarkably close connection for every spectator with the dramatic action, whether tense, comic or tender. The acoustic is generous, and the orchestra under Dominic Wheeler did full justice to Britten’s brilliantly colourful and haunting score right from those first eerie glissandi.

Collin Shay (Oberon) and William Sharma (Puck) © Clive Barda
Collin Shay (Oberon) and William Sharma (Puck)
© Clive Barda

Britten’s opera rewards a production like this fine one from Martin Lloyd-Evans that does all that is asked and adds some imaginative detail. The woodland scenes are played on an ellipse of light, attached by taut ropes to a similar smaller ellipse high above, reminiscent of an abstract sculpture, the magic of geometry representing that of a nocturnal fairy kingdom. A large shallow bowl-shaped chair (throne?) stands in for the flowery bank on which the fairy monarchs recline. The lighting and occasional video work is excellent, the background a deep forest of hanging light-bulbs, variously lit at different moments, one even becoming the bee whose honey-bag Bottom instructs Cobweb to seize. A moon progresses across stage, and there is a sense of always being surrounded by the dark, from which characters emerge through those taut ropes as if through a copse. It is, as this of all operas requires, enchanting.

William Sharma (Puck), Madison Nonoa (Tytania) and Collin Shay (Oberon) © Clive Barda
William Sharma (Puck), Madison Nonoa (Tytania) and Collin Shay (Oberon)
© Clive Barda

The spirits who inhabit this woodland realm are garbed as contemporary goths, dark and edgy with a hint of menace. There are some Elizabethan touches in ruffs for the chorus and farthingales (without skirts) for the monarchs. William Sharma’s Puck amusingly resembles his masters in all this, but his large naked belly inhibits his mobility; he can barely emerge from a trapdoor let alone “put a girdle round about the earth in forty minutes”. The little changeling boy is a (large) 1950’s schoolboy, cowed and frightened, perhaps by years of abuse – if so, it was the only hint of a production ‘agenda’ all evening. The lovers’ costumes are more contemporary, though they dispensed with any outerwear in their Act 2 dispute. Theseus and Hippolyta are more 20th-century regal, their palace indicated by a giant empty picture frame and some imposing seating. Add the rustics’ changing space and props and there is a cluttered final stage picture, rather reducing the impact of the closing chorus of the fairies. They were not the stipulated boys’ chorus but an adult group, which although it impairs Britten’s scrupulously stratified sound world for the Dream, gives Tytania a more substantial-looking group of courtiers, often jerking their heads like timid animals, than the diminutive acolytes the Fairy Queen usually commands.

William Sharma (Puck), Seán Boylan (Demetrius), Lucy McAuley (Hermia) and Frederick Jones (Lysander) © Clive Barda
William Sharma (Puck), Seán Boylan (Demetrius), Lucy McAuley (Hermia) and Frederick Jones (Lysander)
© Clive Barda

There are two casts, and the leads I heard were an impressive team. Collin Shay’s Oberon started slightly hesitantly but soon established impressive vocal authority for the “captain of this fairy band”. The role was crafted very closely for Alfred Deller’s lowish range, and Shay’s strengths sounded most impressive in the middle and higher reaches. He sang especially exquisitely of the “bank where the wild thyme blows”. Madison Nonoa’s Tytania was the standout performance of the night. “Come now a roundel” was exquisite from its offstage opening through all its skips and leaps, sung within the musical line rather than as vocal acrobatics. Those “two lovely berries moulded on one stem”, Hermia and Helena, sounded enamoured or combative as the plot demanded, Lucy MaCauley’s Hermia offering much fury and fun when crossed. Samantha Clarke’s Helena made a touchingly pathetic “spaniel” in her pursuit of the Demetrius of Seán Boylan, who rejected her with such imposing vocal force one was surprised she persisted. Lysander was Frederick Jones, whose appealing tenor and stage presence makes one suspect we will hear more of him.

Robert Lewis (Flute) and Sam Carl (Bottom) © Clive Barda
Robert Lewis (Flute) and Sam Carl (Bottom)
© Clive Barda

The Rude Mechanicals relished their command performance, and were a spirited bunch, led by the hilariously self-regarding Bottom of Sam Carl. His fine voice is lighter than those sometimes heard in the role – the very first Bottom in 1960 was Owen Brannigan, vocal Gold Medallist at this School in 1942 – and the alternative Bottom in this short run was Christian Valle, an imposing Theseus in this performance. But Carl had above all that curious charisma which Shakespeare gives Bottom, and which his rustic am-dram colleagues touchingly recognise. Well worth “sixpence a day”, surely.

****1