Kathleen Kim as Tytania and Matthew Rose as Bottom in Britten's "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
(Photo : Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)
On Friday night, the Metropolitan Opera premiered a revival of Benjamin Britten's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in commemoration of the composer's centennial. The comedy, based on the play by William Shakespeare, is not among the powerhouses of Britten's operatic output the way that "Billy Bud" and "Peter Grimes" are, but it is rife with its own pleasures.
The opera tells the story of the mystical and human realms that feature two pairs of star-crossed lovers and a theatrical troupe that find themselves lost in the woods outside of Athens. These two groups eventually come together and find themselves at a climactic wedding celebration albeit in differing roles.
For the revival, the Met has opted to go back to the 1996 production by Tim Albery. Albery does not shy away from the fantastical elements of Shakespeare's play, but the outcome is not always satisfactory and often winds up being a bit uneven. Keeping in mind the reflexive aspects of the play (play with in the play and the occasional breaking of the fourth wall by Puck), Albery's production presents a stage within a stage and cuts down the size of the stage to amplify the effect. As the red curtain rises, the viewer is shown a dark wall with a sketch of a house rising and flipping over; a symbol that will reassert itself at the end of the work. A massive moon and some stars appear in the background and a children's chorus arrives and introduces Tytiana (Kathleen Kim) and Oberon (Iestyn Davies). The scene then shifts to a seeming mountain landscape where four youths (Lysander, Hermia, Helena, and Demetrius) are introduced. Shortly after the theater troupe shows up. This particular scenery is rather bland and while it does the job, the unfinished quality highlights the age of the production. The final scene returns to the starry background with a large moon in the center. The first act spends a great deal of time introducing the main characters and while the music certainly interests the viewer, the production is rather stale in this regard. The actors simply stand about throughout, accentuating the overall flat quality of the set around them.
Act two is far superior in every respect as a visual illusion of the moon shines over the curtains and slowly flickers away as the characters come into view. The stage opens up to create a number of levels or "stages" and the theater group comes in through doors on both sides of each level. The lighting creates a rather painterly green over the panels. The ensuing scene is excellently executed and the costuming for the donkey is spot-on. The remainder of the scene takes place in this exact setting and is highly effective in its portrayal.
The third act starts off with repetitions of past scenes until it eventually shifts to the wedding scene. Theseus and Hippolyta arrive as silhouettes holding weapons and are eventually united with the four lovers. The actors arrive and put on a play for the three couples in what is certainly the highlight of the entire evening. Albery opts for another stage within a stage. The aforementioned house makes its return in the final image before the work ends with a brilliant theatrical coup that is magical in its execution. This act's scenery is rather uninspired (again another moment in which the production shows its age) and if not for a solid staging and terrific performances, this act could easily have been a drag.
The costuming is a bit awkward in many respects as it posits modern dress against ancient attire. While it looks silly at times, it certainly adds to the surreal quality as it brings the ancient and modern tradition on the stage at the same time.
The production would likely be a tremendous bore if not for a terrific cast to bring the opera to life. As Tytiana, Kim is graceful physically and vocally. She moves about the stage with ease and facility and her voice reaches the stratospheric passages without any sign of difficulty or discomfort. As Oberon, countertenor Davies sings with a delicate quality that suggests the mystical elements of the character. This is dominant presence but the effect is not created through the use of a powerful and omnipresent voice, but through the mystery that Davies creates; he is a magnetic presence every time he graces the stage.
More bombastic but no less impressive is Matthew Rose as Bottom. He dances and whirls about the stage as a donkey and sings with vibrant vocal power. His insertions of donkey sneezes during some lines brought the audience to hysteria every single time without fail and his final scene in the "play" performance is some of most incredible comic timing showcased at the Met opera in years. Barry Banks' gorgeous tenor rings throughout his performance as Flute; he also gets his share of hilarious moments, particularly in the final act. The remainder of the play actors, including Patrick Carfizzi, Evan Hughes, Paul Corono, and Scott Scully are solid in complimentary parts.
Among the four loves, Erin Wall stands out with her gorgeous soprano that is both elegant and powerful in its execution. Her opening scene in which she calls herself a "spaniel" and begs for Demetrius' love is pathetic, but the actress' vocal pleading creates a tremendous amount of pity. When she chides the other three lovers in the quartet, the viewer truly latches on to her defiance and poise. The remainder of the quartet, including Elizabeth DeShong, Michael Todd Simpson and Joseph Kaiser bring life to their characters. The quartet has terrific chemistry and is particularly outstanding during the quartet at the start of Act 3.
Tamara Mumford and Ryan McKinny make small but effective appearances as Theseus and Hippolyta while Riley Costello gives an energetic rendition of the sprite Puck. Props must also be given to the terrific children's chorus assembled by the Met Opera as it is easily the vocal highlight of the entire evening.
In the pit, James Conlon does a terrific job of creating the musical atmosphere; the three preludes that open each act articulate the dream-like qualities of the world and story.
While the production has its deficiencies, the overall experience of the Met's "Midsummer Night's Dream" is engaging and magical in every possible way.