Not being a true opera buff, it so happened that I saw Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the first time in my life on Tuesday night. I knew only one part of it, the very beginning:
How the opening happens to be engraved in my memory is a curious story. It was played to us in Year 8 elective music as a dictation exercise and for some strange reason it’s stuck with me ever since. I’m not sure why, since I couldn’t name even one other work that was introduced to us in this way. I may have been especially attracted to the set of intervals on the words “We do wander everywhere”. Or maybe it was the glissando strings accompaniment, which wreaked havoc with our efforts to write down the melodies.
I’m quite pleased to have been able to unearth it on YouTube, especially since the only version I could find also happens to demonstrate that superbly reedy Spanish choirboy effect (Catalan, actually) that I was hankering for at times on Tuesday. Curiously, it shares echoes of the bilious green, blue and pink colour scheme in OA’s Baz Luhrmann production, but (I’m guessing) its moon remains that classic nail-paring shape for the duration of the performance.
Which brings me to the only truly annoying thing about the Luhrmann production (surely an achievement – I’m easily irritated). Perhaps because of Athens’ new-found sub-continental proximity to the Equator, the moon changed phase several times in the evening. And yet I did always think the whole point of Shakespeare’s play was that the forest adventures took place in one magical night.
But this was a very small thing – and it wasn’t enough to dampen the magic. This production deserves all the acclaim it’s earned. It’s bold, it’s imaginative and, most important, it’s sensitive to music, text and spirit. It’s a brilliant move to get the orchestra out of the pit and onto the on-stage rotunda and in doing so bring the staging further forward into the audience. If there was a downside to this, some of the orchestral balance seemed off at times. The harpsichord, for example, would emerge from the texture mid-phrase and at other odd times, and then be perplexingly inaudible in moments when I’m convinced it would have been playing. (Someone who knows and loves the piece well confirmed my suspicions on this front.) But it was nice to see the musicians as actors within the production: costumed and with a “part” to play that went beyond the usual black-garbed anonymity.
I wasn’t the only one to mark Tobias Cole’s stunning diction (and gorgeous sound): it’s a rare enough thing to be at an opera in English and not feel the slightest urge to check the surtitles. Could the interpretation have been more dangerous and oozing with the power-plays that underpin Oberon’s games? Perhaps. But I’m not sure – on one hearing – that this is in Britten’s opera; perhaps it’s only in my reading of the play, which for various reasons I’ve come to know best of all Shakespeare’s works.
All of which tells me that Britten’s Dream deserves more of my attention. And since I don’t listen to operas on recording if I can possibly help it, I guess this means I’ll need to go see it again. Once anyway.
Over hill, over dale,
Thorough bush, thorough brier,
Over park, over pale,
Thorough flood, thorough fire,
I do wander everywhere…