The impressively well-drilled children’s chorus dominates this glittering production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the second component of Opera North’s Festival of Britten. 20 young performers in white, black wings on their fairy shoulders, wind solemnly in and out of the action, assemble in rows, perform versions of callisthenics exercises, and sing beautifully. They are a little like a PE class from a primary school, but they wear blonde wigs and always move around as a group, bringing to mind the children from that old film The Village of the Damned. Science fiction, like Never Never Land, can be related with ease to the world which Shakespeare created and which Britten adopted, and the set has a sci-fi feel, with semi-transparent hangings and giant silver inflated globules floating above. These children have eyes which do not glow, and they are not particularly sinister, but they are appropriately charming and sing with a proficiency beyond their years, as when they deal wonderfully with the chromatic “Jack shall have Jill; / Naught shall go ill; / The man shall have his mare again, / And all shall be well” towards the end. I wished at times that they would jig around a little more, but that sort of thing is provided elsewhere.

Daniel Abelson as Puck with James Laing as Oberon (behind), © Tristram Kenton
Daniel Abelson as Puck with James Laing as Oberon (behind),
© Tristram Kenton

The opening scenes took time to gain momentum on the opening night, but James Laing as Oberon soon got into his stride, his “otherness” well-defined by his shimmering armour and his powerful countertenor. “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows” is enthralling. Daniel Abelson’s gymnastic and harsh-voiced Puck (he never sings) is a good laugh, at least according to the nine-year-old sitting near me, who considered him to be the best character because he had hairy legs. He travels round the stage at times like a dog, as Oberon’s obedient pet with the magic flower in his mouth, or in funny walks, or kicking his legs about in the general direction of pesky fairies, like a mischievous teenager. The rude mechanicals are, as is normal in “The Dream”, the ones doing most of the comic jigging, moving easily to climactic heights with their performance of Pyramus and Thisbe in Act III.

Henry Waddington is a terrific Bottom. He proves himself to be yet another true descendant of Will Kemp, possibly the original stand-up, who invented the part with Shakespeare, a versatile performer who is as much at home blustering and strutting like a village Mussolini in this part as he was when he gave us such a charismatic Caleb earlier this year in Joshua, but it is not just because of him in his cockerel helmet that members of the audience weep with laughter. The mechanicals, or rustics rather (Britten liked this term better), are all slick knockabout entertainers, and Nicholas Sharratt is brilliant as Flute, playing the part of Thisbe, in the composer’s burlesque of a 19th-century operatic mad scene, without going too far over the top.

Jeni Bern, in slinky satin, contributes considerably to the erotic content with her Tytania, and she is superb when exhorting Bottom, in his see-through ass’s head, to “sit thee down upon this flowery bed”, doing full justice to some of Britten’s best music for a soprano. The lovers have costumes which hint at the hippy era, right for a play/opera which is at least partly about hedonism and mind-altering substances, and they are quick, when it is called for, to strip down to underclothes. This can be hilarious as well as sexy, especially when the macho Demetrius (Quirijn de Lang) is singing with his pants round his ankles. There is plenty of strongly contrasting bitchiness when Helena and Hermia (Sky Ingram and Kathryn Rudge) are exchanging insults: Hermia’s rendition of “How low am I, thou painted maypole“, and Helena’s reaction, are really enjoyable. The confusions of the lovers in the forest are organized with all the skills which would be required for a French farce, thanks to director Martin Duncan, and the orchestra, conducted by Stuart Stratford, proves that it is one of the best.

I was bemused by the Indian boy, a faceless puppet like a restaurant mascot which descends briefly on lines a couple of times, and I did not see the need for distracting surtitles, with Shakespeare’s words on two screens, but all the same this was yet another really good night out with Opera North.

****1