Musk roses, oxlips, nodding violets. The grounds of the Nevill Holt estate in Leicestershire are probably host to all of the flora Oberon describes to Puck to aid him seek out Titania’s bower in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Even under English monsoon conditions, otherwise known as the country house opera season, it looks picturesque, peonies and poppies drizzled with raindrops. What better place could there be for Britten’s operatic version of the Bard’s Dream? However, even the charming setting cannot distract from a production lacking sharp direction.

Daisy Brown (Tytania) © Ali Wright
Daisy Brown (Tytania)
© Ali Wright

Nevill Holt Hall dates back to the 13th century, with alterations and additions down the years, the latest of which was the conversion of the 17th-century stable block into the 400-seat theatre that opened last season. This year, it won three Royal Institute of British Architects awards and it’s easy to see – and hear – why. Chestnut wood and concrete flooring give a clean, modern feel. Seating is comfortable, sightlines clear – the balcony adopts a horseshoe shape – and the acoustics are superb, every scintillating note from the relatively large pit fired into the auditorium with pinpoint accuracy.

Most of the magic on opening night emanated from this pit. The Britten Sinfonia, under Nevill Holt Opera’s artistic director Nicholas Chalmers, teased out every icy sul ponticello and slithering glissando in Britten’s brilliantly orchestrated score. The precision of the woodwind and brass playing was superb, resounding with clarity.

Lawson Anderson (Bottom) and Daisy Brown (Tytania) © Ali Wright
Lawson Anderson (Bottom) and Daisy Brown (Tytania)
© Ali Wright

Anna Morrissey’s production disappoints, although Simon Kenny’s two-tier set holds promise. The lower level is framed by a curtain of silvery chainmail which allows characters to make entrances and exits and props to be pushed through. The upper level is dominated by a giant moon – sometimes lit blood orange – and greenery, seeming to separate the fairy kingdom from the mortals. A metal bed frame dangles above the stage for much of the evening, for no apparent purpose. Silver inflatable pillows furnish Tytania’s bower.

Morrissey’s stagecraft sometimes deserts her. For example, it’s a nice idea to have blue petals shower over Lysander when Puck applies the love juice; but when further doses are administered to Tytania and Demetrius, these petals fall from exactly the same spot, nowhere near the fairies’ latest targets. Later, when Oberon approaches the bower, Puck’s music scuttles mischievously … but Puck is already immoblie by this point, curled up on the bed. Is the director listening to the music?

Lawson Anderson (Bottom) and Jasper William Cartwright (Puck) © Ali Wright
Lawson Anderson (Bottom) and Jasper William Cartwright (Puck)
© Ali Wright

Humour is sprinkled liberally. Tytania shaves her legs and plucks her nose-hair in preparation for her tryst with Bottom, who is provided with his own “donkeycure” as the fairies file his hooves. But there are plenty of misfires too, puerile humour – lots of underwear gags – that give the impression of a student production where everyone’s been allowed to improvise their own jokes. The Mechanicals’ Pyramus and Thisbe play-within-a-play has never been more unfunny.

Among the better ideas was seeing Tytania visibly upset at Oberon’s treachery to take ownership of the Indian boy. It’s a reluctant reconciliation between the fairy king and queen, reflected in the following scene between Hippolyta and Theseus where it’s clear she has been taken into marriage by force into his palace of bling.

The cast is generally good, led by Daisy Brown’s impressive Tytania, with just a hint of diamond hardness at the vertiginous top of her range. Despite some sweet phrasing of his “I know a bank”, Timothy Morgan’s Oberon lacked charisma. Lawson Anderson sang an amiable Bottom, every word of his firm bass-baritone audible, even behind his donkey mask. Martha Jones’ warm mezzo as Hermia was the pick of a decent quartet of lovers and Richard Pinkstone’s fluid tenor was perfect for Flute’s Donizetti imitation as Thisbe.

Daisy Brown (Tytania) and the fairies © Ali Wright
Daisy Brown (Tytania) and the fairies
© Ali Wright

Jasper William Cartwright was an athletic Puck, dressed in indigo pantaloons, leaping about the stage causing mayhem. He was supported by a super crew of fairies, drawn from the Malcolm Arnold Academy, Arbours Primary Academy and Cedar Road Primary. In bleached wigs and with grey bags under their eyes, it’s clear these fairies were getting no sleep, but they sang like angels. As the moon sank and stable door opened to offer the real world outside, there was even a whiff of magic.


Mark’s travel to Nevill Holt was funded by Chloe Nelkin Consulting

***11