Perhaps it is a blessing that this year’s Britten anniversary has been muted in New York. Wall Street’s Trinity Church has an ongoing retrospective, and the composer’s 100th birthday will be celebrated in a programme of the Spring Symphony and the Serenade at the New York Philharmonic, as well as a Peter Grimes at Carnegie Hall from the St Louis Symphony. In Britain one seemingly cannot move for Peter Grimeses, let alone many of Britten’s lesser works. A Midsummer Night’s Dream belongs to the second rank of his operas, not comparable to Grimes or The Turn of the Screw, but at least more impressive than, say, Gloriana. Yet this is the one Britten work scheduled by the Metropolitan Opera this year, in Tim Albery’s production from 1996, revived most recently in 2002.

Kathleen Kim and Matthew Rose © Marty Sohl / Metropolitan Opera, 2013
Kathleen Kim and Matthew Rose
© Marty Sohl / Metropolitan Opera, 2013

Thankfully, Antony McDonald’s psychological designs are infused with such colour, and mix childish naivety with the opera’s dark undercurrents so well that Albery’s staging in no way shows its age. For the most part Shakespeare’s forest is tokened by lurid green schemes, slight wood patterns visible on arboreal walls, and a horizontal tree winding through vertical layers. Doors built into enclosing groves allow myriad entrances and exits, while the construction allows hide, seek, and surprise even in the absence of trees. Chalkboard surrounds to the stage and the stage-within-a-stage in the third act lend an air of magical impermanence, while crescent moons and purplish blacks suggest the dreams of a child’s bedroom for Tytania and the realm of the fairies.

All the while, though, blessed by a cast that in many cases shows genuine acting ability, Albery’s production doesn’t stint on the tricky issues that surround Britten and this opera in particular. Tytania and Oberon fight over a young boy, treated as chattel, and Oberon’s relationship with Puck obviously tends towards violence, and there are hints at more. The balance, in this opera if not in many of Britten’s others, comes in comedy. For once at the Met, this stays on the more affecting side of slapstick, at least until slapstick is called for in Britten’s disingenuous parodies of composers whose works he doesn’t like in the play-within-a-play (Verdi, Donizetti and Schoenberg will survive, I imagine). The troupe of working players are genuinely funny, led by Matthew Rose’s magnificent kicking, eeyore-ing Bottom that nevertheless remains deeply human, and Barry Banks doing a fine job putting Flute directly in the tradition of comedians in drag.

The rest of the large ensemble cast maintained their high standards. Iestyn Davies was scarily menacing as Oberon, rendered the more otherworldly by his laser-precise voice, one nonetheless subtle and humane enough still to show that at the base of all his machinations is an enduring love for his queen. With others faltering, and after a solid performance in Thomas Adès’ The Tempest last season, Davies ought now to be the countertenor of choice. Kathleen Kim, as Tytania, made the best of an awkward role, just about managing to make her incantated desire for Bottom the donkey believable, or at least not unbelievable. Four more star-crossed lovers are the third panel of Britten’s triumvirate scheme after the fairies and the workers, and although their constant to-ing and fro-ing between one another wears thin after the first few jokes, Joseph Kaiser and Michael Todd Simpson (Lysander and Demetrius) sang with full voice and ample control, while Elizabeth DeShong and Erin Wall (Hermia and Helena) kept the hysterics in check. Beyond Banks and Rose, Patrick Carfizzi, Paul Corona, Scott Scully, and Evan Hughes all acquitted themselves admirably, as in even smaller parts did Ryan McKinny and Tamara Mumford as the Duke of Athens and his betrothed. One wondered whether Riley Costello’s spoken Puck might have shaped his lines a little too much as if in a Broadway musical, but then Stephen Terry in Britten’s own recording took much the same approach, and Costello’s boyish athleticism certainly helped propel the drama. Last, but far from least, young Seth Ewing-Crystal, Kiki Porter, Benjamin Wenzelberg, and Thatcher Pitkoff all sang beautifully as the fairies, with power that would embarrass a few of the lesser lights to have appeared on this stage.

It would be easy to overemphasize how forward-looking Britten’s score is: largely, when not aping others, it simply doubles vocal lines in single instruments at a slight remove. The orchestration clearly defines the different worlds of the dream, using harps, harpsichord, and percussion for the fairies, the strings and woods for the Greek lovers, and a more varying whirl for the troupe. James Conlon refused to linger, and although there were some utterly gorgeous moments (the fairies’ lullaby at the close of the second act, especially) the modernist approach he took only underlined what some might consider to be the conservatism of the music in general. What he did achieve was to put Britten in a direct line from Henry Purcell to Thomas Adès, much as the latter might disapprove. And Conlon drew flexible, light playing from the orchestra: Billy R. Hunter Jr., a solo trumpeter so key to this work because he dominates Puck’s flickering music, put barely a note wrong all evening. All in all, certainly worth seeing.