Audiences have come to look forward to the annual co-production between Scottish Opera and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, where student opera singers, orchestra players and backstage crew get a chance to partner up with their professionals across the other side of Glasgow’s Hope Street. In this big Year of Britten, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with its many individual singing parts, was a good choice, made even more special by reviving the distinctive 2005 Covent Garden production from Olivia Fuchs.

Scottish Opera © Kenneth Dundas
Scottish Opera
© Kenneth Dundas

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is essentially a chamber piece with small orchestra, so performing it in a bigger theatre is not without its difficulties, particularly as children are required to sing in ensemble and take the fairy solo parts. In this venue, and contending with an unacceptably noisy audience, details were lost here and there, particularly as late arrivals were let in, blundering along the rows to reach their seats and ruining the atmosphere on stage. This production was designed for a studio where it would have indeed been thrilling, but the unilateral transfer to a bigger space was only partially successful. Extensions to the stage at the sides over the orchestra pit simply don’t work in theatres built with proscenium arch sightlines. That said, there was actually plenty to like.

Fuchs’ staging is simple, effective and so refreshingly different that someone wisely decided to keep the sets and props from the first production at Covent Garden Linbury Studio eight years ago. Before the music started, the already quarrelling Mortals took their places in individual theatre seats onstage facing the audience. As the opening glissandi in the cellos conjured the enchanted midsummer forest, they all fell asleep as the fairy spell took hold, leaving us to consider if the story was a series of dreams within dreams.

Niki Turner’s set design and Bruno Poet’s lighting created a truly magical place to dream, with a green strip-lit forest and a three-shelf structure with violet neon lighting. A large plush black velvet armchair tempted characters to lie back and drift off, and a rope hung down from the fly tower. At the back of the set, in a welcome subtle use of video projection, at times a huge single human eye gazed out at the players and audience sleepily. Phrases from the play were displayed in blue neon round the walls of the set.

If the fairy chorus was somewhat underpowered, then Louise Kemeny’s Tytania and Tom Verney’s Oberon made up for things with some attractive singing and clear diction. Oberon’s “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows” is one of the opera’s most beautiful moments, and here, we were not disappointed. Britten wrote the lynchpin Puck as a speaking part, played here as in the original Fuchs production by the athletic aerial artist Jami Reid-Quarrell in a dazzling performance jumping mischievously all over the stage structures, shimmying up the rope, sliding down a pole from the top box to the stage, and balancing on the back of the armchair. A welcome diversion from those so-serious Mortals.

In this production, the Mortals (and Tytania) were double cast. Jessica Leary’s Helena, Laura Margaret Smith’s Hermia, Raoni Hübner’s Lysander and Jon Stainsbury’s Demetrius were all sung well individually and blended delightfully in the quartet in the final act as they emerged from their deep sleep of reconciliation, stacked up on the shelving structure like a quadruple bunk bed.

The Mechanicals, led by Scottish Opera emerging artists (and former RCS students) Andrew McTaggart – a particularly assured Bottom, and Rónan Busfield as Flute made welcome amusing diversions as they prepared and performed the play within the play, Pyramus and Thisbe for the Court of Theseus and Hippolata, watched by the finally happy Mortals.

Conductor, and Director of Opera at the Conservatoire, Timothy Dean let Britten’s music weave its magic from wistful strings to taut percussion and trumpet playing. Ideally, I would have preferred a new production to fit the theatre, but it was interesting to see Fuchs’ unusual take on this opera.

***11