There’s something more than a bit radical about the fairies in gay composer Benjamin Britten’s operatic adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He wrote the part of Oberon, king of the fairies, for a countertenor, a male voice singing in a soprano range (hauntingly sung by Iestyn Davies in the Met’s current revival).
Britten also gives all of the best diva coloratura action to the soprano playing Tytania, queen of the fairies (creamily delivered here by Kathleen Kim). And Puck – Oberon’s right-hand fairy, and the queerest role in both the play and opera – is set even further apart, speaking his role while everybody else sings. Riley Costello makes a full meal of it, responding sensuously to Oberon’s masterful demands.
Also, the role of Flute, a working man who plays the tragic heroine Thisby in a play-within-a-play (opera-within-an-opera?) was expanded by Britten, who wrote it expressly for his life partner, tenor Peter Pears. “Asleep, my love?”, played for pure comedy in the Shakespeare original, has an added tenderness in the opera, which Barry Banks puts across quite passionately in this production.
I have mixed feelings about director Tim Albery’s work on this production, and they are mixed in fairly exact proportions. His fluid staging is skillful, delivering speed where farce is called for, and languor when Britten and Shakespeare emphasize the beauty of nature.
Visually, however, Albery and designer Anthony McDonald do the opera no favors. They double down on Britten’s modernist tendencies, overworking an awkward metaphor of a 20th Century house invaded by dark dreams. The fairies have wings as black as bats, where every musical choice Britten made about them indicates a shimmering gossamer mystery.
The opera makes an interesting progression, musically speaking, from spiky dissonance in the first act to sumptuous tonality in the third act. Albery has, visually speaking, missed that cue almost completely, with the slight exception of Oberon and Tytania’s glittery final costumes. Overall, this is a very good account of a lesser-known, quite queer opera, but it is certainly in no way definitive.
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