From Mechanicals To Leaping Puck, A Dream Dream
By Matthew Westphal
PHILADELPHIA – Why turn A Midsummer Night’s Dream into an opera in the first place?
Benjamin Britten’s reason was that he needed to crank out a new piece quickly for the 1960 Aldeburgh Festival, and the libretto for this one was already written. (He and Peter Pears adapted Shakespeare’s text themselves, cutting about half but adding only a single line.) That was never enough to convince me, because I had always considered the play to be a delightful romp and the opera a letdown.
I found the answer on Feb. 8 at the Academy of Music, where Opera Philadelphia presented the North American premiere of a staging by director Robert Carsen that’s been seen all over Europe since its debut at the 1991 Aix-en-Provence Festival.
Visually, the production’s appeal is easy to understand: It’s characteristic Carsen, with just a few scenic elements (one or several beds, variously sized and arranged, and the proverbial paper moon, shown at different scales) and costumes that are quick-and-easy to parse. Yet I was discouraged by the DVD of the staging, recorded at the Liceu in Barcelona in 2005. It was slow-paced and dreary, with a painfully unfunny Puck whose performance seemed modeled on the worst of old-time English music hall.
Thank heaven for the director of this revival, Emmanuelle Bastet, who has produced the only satisfying rendition of this opera I’ve ever encountered. She skillfully controlled the comic pacing, devised plenty of entertaining stage business, and drew excellent characterizations, emotional and physical, from the singers. And the diction was so clear that I hardly had to look at a single surtitle all evening. Compare this performance to the DVD, and you’d hardly know it was the same opera.
(There’s only one element of the production that doesn’t work, and it’s conspicuous enough to be worth mention: the ass head that Puck places on Bottom. It looks less like a donkey than a gorilla with a distended jaw.)
It has been a very long time since I’ve seen any opera with a cast this good from top to, well, bottom, vocally and dramatically. (And in a farce, no less, far more difficult to bring off than a drama.) Countertenor Tim Mead was an authoritative, entitled Oberon; coloratura soprano Anna Christy (who seems to have developed a line in sex-addled sorceresses) was a hedonistic Titania all too ready to lose herself in whatever strikes her fancy.
The four young lovers came across as witty satires of familiar opera stereotypes: Brenton Ryan (a lovely voiced Lysander) as the excitable, over-ardent tenor; Siena Licht Miller (Hermia), the sweet, sensible alto who turns out to be a drama queen; Johnathan McCullough (Demetrius), the young but stolid, not-too-bright baritone. Best of the quartet was Georgia Jarman’s Helena: More than a ditzy soubrette, she looked like she’d stepped out of a Lynda Barry cartoon, with cat’s-eye glasses, gawky gait, enormous chopsticks sticking out of her hairdo, and genuine emotional desperation.
As the rustics, bass Matthew Rose was a wisely underplayed Bottom, naturally authoritative as the leader of this group of chowderheads without unduly mugging or showing off (except as Pyramus, when that’s the point). Miles Mykkanen, the Flute, displayed an easy, grainy high tenor and, as Thisbe, a gift for slapstick and burlesque. (Quick, somebody cast him as Rameau’s Platée!) Bass Patrick Guetti stood out in the tiny part of Snug the Joiner/the Lion; it’s a difficult trick to play a genuinely dimwitted character believably but without cruelty, and he pulled it off. Tenor George Ross Somerville as Snout was a hoot, especially as the Wall that separates Pyramus and Thisbe; his entrance and exit got hearty laughs.
The lineup was so strong that even Theseus and Hippolyta, roles much reduced from Shakespeare’s original (and thus susceptible to throwaway casting) made an impression in the hands of Evan Hughes and Allyson McHardy. And the children, for whom an opera listener usually has to make allowances, were secure: As the fairy band, the Philadelphia Boys Choir was on the soft side but blessedly accurate of pitch.
If most of these successes are dramatic rather than musical, it’s because A Midsummer Night’s Dream just isn’t top-drawer Britten. There’s little of the gentle enchantment of A Ceremony of Carols or the exotic delicacy in Curlew River or Death in Venice (and no call for the gut-grabbing thunder in Peter Grimes). But neither is there anything jarring or off-putting in the score, and conductor Corrado Rovaris supported his singers and paced things well.
I’ve left Puck for last because I’ve always found the role in this opera so lame. Britten, reportedly inspired by Swedish child acrobats, intended the part for a young actor who could both deliver verse and execute tumbling. I’ve never encountered any such Puck; he’s been the weakest link in every performance I’ve seen.
This time, at last, someone has made the part work. On the surface, this individual would seem a wildly improbable choice: Miltos Yerolemou, a diminutive, middle-aged Cypriot-Briton best known for playing Syrio Forel in Game of Thrones (Season 1). He spoke the verse with aplomb, deftly handled the broad physical comedy, and was game enough to take a flying leap from the stage into a parterre box.
As good as Yerolemou was, he didn’t stand out unduly because the overall standard was so high. The curtain calls were telling: The audience gave a hearty, delighted response, but no individual bows drew louder applause than any other. The performances were so consistent and well-integrated that you really couldn’t single out a favorite.
Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream continues at Opera Philadelphia through Feb. 17. For information and tickets, go here.
Based in New York City, Matthew Westphal, formerly an editor at Andante.com and PlaybillArts.com and a contributing critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer, is an associate editor at ArtsJournal.com.Date posted: February 12, 2019