First Nighter: Britten's "Midsummer Night's Dream" Dreamy at the Met

10/13/2013 07:46 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Looking over the relatively lighter crowd coursing into the first revival of Benjamin Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream at the Metropolitan Opera House since 2002, I wondered whether my admiration for Benjamin Britten's work lies as much as anything in my pronounced Anglophilia. Is that what obscures my understanding of the drawbacks seen by others to the works of the composer-librettist (here with co-librettist Peter Pears)?
No answer springs to mind now that I've watched and listened to what Britten and Pears have done with Shakespeare's comedy about the ambiguities of love and its frequently arbitrary, even contradictory and vengeful, nature. I remain particularly baffled at audience resistance (such as it is) after reveling in the 1996 production directed by Tim Albery and designed by Antony McDonald with unmistakable homage to Howard Hodgkin's theatrical canvases. Not to mention McDonald's marvelous costumes.
To some extent Shakespeare serves a delectable challenge to a composer by way of the three worlds mingling in his comedy--the world of the court, the world of the fairies and the world of the rustics. The music he writes for each--the distinct instrumentation he chooses--has the feeling of being worked out not in two but in three clefs.
By this musical token, he has the fairies, led by countertenor Oberon (Iestyn Davies) and Tytania (soprano Kathleen Kim) at the top; the mystified court lovers Lysander (Joseph Kaiser), Hermia (Elizabeth DeShong), Demetrius (Michael Todd Simpson), Helena (Erin Wall), as presided over by Theseus (Ryan McKinny) and Hippolyta (Tamara Mumford) in the middle; and the rustics, bluffly supervised by Bottom (Matthew Rose) at the, well, at the bottom.
Makes great sense in conception and even more delightful sense in execution, especially when worlds collide and the shift between those distinctive clefs abruptly occurs--as in the second act when the extremely amusing sequence in which the rustics rehearse their Pyramus and Thisbe sketch gives way to the fairy realm.
And notice the passage where the lovers harangue one another--ill-starred through the problems careless Puck (Riley Costello, in the opera's speaking role) causes. Then notice the third act opening when they awaken from their midsummer nightmare of cross purposes. These sections are rich with melody and emotion--and in Albery's production beautifully staged. When Hermia, Lysander, Helena and Demetrius regain their sentient selves and insert the appropriate name into the phrase "And I have found _______ like a jewel," the opera's romance reaches a mesmerizing peak.
Another beauty part of Britten's approach is that he wastes no time beginning each act with seductive effect. The 12 chords evolving one into the next that introduce the first act--and its kick-off children's choral singing--is so arresting that, as far as I'm concerned, no critic can offer a reasonable argument against its immediate power to enthrall. The same can be said for the very different starts of the second and third acts.
James Conlon, something of a special Britten interpreter, conducts for utmost effect. He's certainly attuned to the brilliance--in a couple definitions of the word--of the composing going on. Under his baton, the harp, the harpsichord, the string and woodwinds, the bassoons et al--each carefully and pointedly selected to represent a separate but infringing sphere--register articulately.
As a matter of fact, Conlon has such respect for and interest in Britten's accomplishment and intentions that he's written an essay for The Hudson Review's Autumn 2013 issue called "Message, Meaning and Code in the Operas of Benjamin Britten." Conlon knows the man both on the podium and in print and charts the possible ways Britten coded his situation as a homosexual man in a repressive society into his compositions--for instance, Oberon written as a countertenor being the Midsummer Night's Dream easily denied clue.
If anything might explain the difficulty listeners have with Britten, it could be, as my companion argued to me, that an opera of some intimacy, like A Midsummer Night's Dream, is best appreciated in a smaller house. This might be so, although there's no question that the scenes with Bottom and jocular pals fill the room --certainly as sung here by the physically and vocally large Rose with an occasional bray in his notes and as played and sung by the pleasingly round Barry Banks as Flute pretending to be Thisbe (the part Pears originated).
On opening night, the singing throughout was everything required, and in many instances more than that. Davies's countertenor was in good shape and as countertenoring often goes, scene-stealing--although no one steals scenes from Kim, whose clarion voice continually prevailed.
Rose and Banks, as indicated above were both fine and funny. Kaiser, Simpson, DeShong and Wall warbled with distinction. During their lovers' quartets in the Athenian forest, however, they occasionally became more a matter of action rather than vocal attraction. McKinny and Mumford, making their joint entrance much later than the Bard has them arrive, were undeniably commanding.
Seth Ewing-Crystal as Cobweb, Kiki Porter as Peaseblossom, Benjamin P. Wenzelberg as Mustardseed and Thatcher Pitkoff as Moth raised their voices in sweet sound and were clear in their diction, but the entire children's chorus, directed by Anthony Piccolo, were much less clear about what they were singing.
By the way, it's possible the Met's casting department's awareness of making the opus big enough for the space it needs to occupy explains a curious facet of this revival: the unusual number of tall men. They include Simpson, Kaiser, McKinny and Rose, who's even taller when wearing the ass's head along with his enlarging wide-window-pane suit. Wall as Helena is also tall and makes a comic contrast with the smaller DeShong. The two of them are echoed in the contrast between the petite Kim's Tytania as enamored of Rose's ass-for-a-night Bottom.
Somehow it's all in good fun. Have some others--or many--already exclaimed, "Rule, Britten-ia!" If so, here's the exclamation again in favor of a revival that deserves to have 'em flocking.