As a Suffolk girl, growing up just six miles from Benjamin Britten’s place of birth, the music of this most English of composers runs deep through my veins. Whilst preparing for my visit to Opera Zuid's new production of A Midsummer Night's Dream here in Zwolle in the easternmost region of the Netherlands, the question which haunted my thoughts was always, how successful would this production be in creating this most quintessential of English tapestries and sound worlds in a country with a shared sea, but a very different language?

A Midsummer Night's Dream
© Kurt van der Elst

The scene was set, or so I thought! Sitting in the balcony of the Theater De Spiegel, ready to be entranced by the magical world of Shakespeare’s fairies, we were suddenly faced with hammering and the sound of drills – real drills, not some toy – and what looked like a good number of workmen on stage. I was not the only one in the audience who was more than a little perplexed.

This though, was not the end of the mayhem. We were now faced with a series of embarrassing questions which required audience participation. “Have we always been faithful to those we love? Has anyone ever done anything unforgivable?” Again, I was not the only one who was unsure if this was part of the act or just a slightly disturbing opening. Either way, it added nothing to the performance, and by the seventh question, the awkwardness in the auditorium was apparent with the audience choosing to remain seated. And so the music began.

Kristina Bitenc (Tytania)
© Joost Milde

We moved swiftly through the first two acts where we were subjected to some rather troubling diction from the Belgian countertenor, Jan Wouters, a shame as it detracted from the enjoyment of the visual spectacle so successfully created by the director, Ola Mafaalani and set designer, Andre Joosten. A distinct lack of consonants and rather strange vowels made Wouters’ performance quite a challenge to follow, and he lacked the focus and vocal clarity often found in interpretations of this role.

Musically, we lacked the push and pull and turbulence of the sea that is so integral to Britten’s writing and nowhere more so than in the role of Tytania, a role traditionally sung by a coloratura soprano. It was this aspect of the role which proved most troublesome. Slovenian soprano, Kristina Bitenc, whilst an exceedingly enticing and seductive actress, lacked the deep understanding of the musical language and vocal agility required, in a role where the voice and vocal range is used so cleverly by Britten to enchant and seduce the forest and its inhabitants into submission.

The Mechanicals
© Joost Milde

Coupled with the rather scantily clad Mechanicals, revealing rather more bare skin than seemed necessary, this was a somewhat unsettling start to the performance. Nevertheless Bottom, performed by Marc Pantus, made up for this somewhat as he revelled in his fabulous lower register.

The arrival of the four lovers did herald a change in pace along with much improved diction, with tenor Ted Black in the role of Lysander, channelling his inner Peter Pears in what was a welcome improvement in the quality of the performance. The children’s choir performed with great confidence for some so young, however diction was still an issue, and they missed the opportunity to really revel in the syncopations and many dissonances found in the score.

Kristina Bitenc (Tytania) and Marc Pantus (Bottom)
© Kurt van der Elst

At last we found relief in Act 3 as the Mechanicals brought a glimpse of swing and sway and humour to proceedings in their moments of barbershop wonder. A world full of turquoise-clad partygoers was accompanied by a most luscious and precise orchestral accompaniment from the Philharmonie Zuidnederland under the careful and considered guidance of the Flemish conductor, Karel Deseure. Special mention should go to the principal trumpet, Raymond Vievermanns, whose nimble, agile and most evocative sound was the perfect accompaniment for the astounding feats of athleticism displayed by Dreya Weber as Puck, aerial gymnast to the stars – Pink, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Madonna… Trombonist Sandor Hendriks likewise provided seamless antiphonal exchanges with the onstage singers, adding some fabulously fruity bass note interjections, just to keep us all on our toes. 

So to return to my opening question, did this production succeed in creating a musical language characterised by the ebb and flow of the North Sea which runs so deep through Britten’s writing? I would offer a tentative “maybe”. However, what we were presented with was a feast for the eyes with creative and edgy lighting, a clever and expressive use of colour both in the set design and the costumes, and a stunning visual display quite unlike anything I have seen before and may ever see again. This was certainly a Midsummer Night to remember!