Premiered in Aldeburgh on 11 June 1960, Britten’s eleventh opera, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is amongst his most difficult works; vocally demanding and musically advanced, its strongest feature is perhaps Britten’s mesmerising use of the orchestra to create a fantastical fairy sound world, whilst music for romance, jealousy, passion and comedy seems to suffer a rather coldly intellectual treatment.

Employing Britten’s specified minimum instrumentation to intimate effect, the orchestra’s atmospheric accompaniment to the musical underbrush of the forest mingled with the purple haze of Michael Holt and Jason Taylor’s design quite elegantly, before a troop of rather mature fairies shattered the mood; though Britten’s score suggests trebles or sopranos, in terms of a lighter, purer vocal quality, trebles are easily preferable, though in a conservatoire performance young sopranos are inevitable.

Kieron-Connor Valentine (Oberon) and Charlotte Christensen (Puck) © Paul Cliff
Kieron-Connor Valentine (Oberon) and Charlotte Christensen (Puck)
© Paul Cliff

Countertenor Kieron-Connor Valentine’s regal and majestic Oberon certainly looked the part, but the voice, especially in the lower registers, lacked the support and power of projection required to reach even the middle of the auditorium, frequently rendering him inaudible. When he could be heard, however, he expressed an excellent tone with beautiful diction, and navigated the difficult line of Britten’s melody with enviable accuracy – this is a role I would love to hear him sing in ten years time. Joanna Norman’s Tytania was much more vocally secure, and provided a wonderful opportunity to hear the breadth of her ability. 

In Puck, Charlotte Christensen wasn’t especially shrewd or knavish, but bruised the flow of Britten’s rhythmic intentions by rushing and delivering each line in the same excessive exhortation, without variety of mood or tone; this speaking role requires an energy and panache much more easily achieved by a mischievous teenage acrobat. In Christensen’s defence, a costume that resembled a cross between a production of Cats and one of Peter Pan’s lost boys did not help.

The lovers, six Rude Mechanicals and fairies of this second cast were collectively less experienced and unconfident in terms of characterisation and vocal ability – as this is a student production I have no fear that these qualities will no doubt be galvanised by the excellent RNCM vocal department, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream was perhaps simply an unfortunate choice for these particular singers to master at this stage. Unenthusiastic, often inaudible and slightly awkward, it was evident from their first entries that lessons in comic acting and projection would be of inestimable help. James Fisher’s Bottom demonstrated his usual affinity for excellent diction, but it was Jeffrey Taylor’s Flute that excelled vocally and dramatically, with an impressive clarity of tone, projection and amusing characterisation. It is unfortunate that the surtitles appeared to have a mind of their own, and were with some regularity too fast, too slow or absent altogether in moments of crucial vocal delivery.

Joanna Norman (Tytania) and James Fisher (Bottom) © Paul Cliff
Joanna Norman (Tytania) and James Fisher (Bottom)
© Paul Cliff

Dramatically, there was something missing too – the lovers didn’t seem to like each other very much, Lysander and Hermia delivering their “I swear to thee” promises several feet apart which, when coupled with Britten’s rather sterile score, makes for rather sober passion. The Mechanicals relied on a crude, obvious slapstick that just wasn’t funny. For a much more musically and comically satisfying rendering of the Pyramus and Thisbe portion of the play, see John Frederick Lampe’s 1745 mock-opera of the same name.

Visually the production is pleasant enough; an understated forest – unusual for the RNCM’s often opulent sets. Sadly, costumes were not very interesting. Ultimately, whether a production is professional, student or amateur, when the curtain falls, the costumes are hung, and the greasepaint flows down the sink, in opera it is the music that matters, and I feel that this particular performance amounted to little.

This review covers only one of two casts, and I would be very keen to hear the alternative singers. The orchestra however, which was the same for both casts, was excellent throughout, especially the strings whose tuning, intonation and tone quality were impressive. Balance throughout the orchestra was also wonderfully secure and impressively controlled by conductor Andrew Greenwood. As ever, I eagerly look forward to forthcoming RNCM productions, and especially a rare opportunity to hear Weil’s Street Scene in the autumn.