A Midsummer Night's Dream, Britten

Lyric Opera of Chicago

20th November, 2010


I know a bank where the wild thyme blows...

Chicago Lyric Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is direct, unabashed, and full of electricity. This production reminds us of Britten’s skill as a dramatist, and makes a case for a greater inclusion of his works into standard repertoire.

Director Neil Armfield allowed a production style rife with obstacles. There were virtually no set pieces, leaving the burden of the drama to be fleshed out by the orchestra and the players. This challenge was met beautifully and the payoff was grand. The central theme was established from the first few measures; whilst the strings played an otherworldly glissando motive, a canopy billowed atop the players’ heads. This fundamental gesture of the intoxicating breath of the forest was to remain consistent throughout the work, the exception being when the space belonged wholly to the mortal characters.

Anna Christy and Peter Rose David Daniels Lucas Meachem and Erin Wall
Photos by: Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago

Somewhat in contrast to the undulating, curved forest canopy was the metallic, distant flying unit ascribed to David Daniels’ Oberon. In what, upon the first entrance, was initially a cheeky penetration of the forest’s tranquility, the flying unit profited only in projecting a hierarchy, in which Oberon swooped down to manipulate events. Practically, it handcuffed Daniels, who moves well, by keeping him aloft until the third act. This resulted in a misplaced pageantry. Vocally, Mr. Daniels provided a luxurious round, warm tone that, unfortunately, did not carry much beyond the first few rows.

As his counterpart in the forest hierarchy, Anna Christy, sang Tytania with a rich soprano and electric sensuality befitting of the role. This was complimented by Esteban Andres Cruz’s clear, energetic interpretation of Puck. Although the spoken lines were mostly shouted in a measured monotone, Cruz's intention was always clear, and his perfectly androgynous physical interpretation of the role was a central contributor to the plausibility of the fairy-world.

Despite the effectively dignified performances of the supernatural characters, it was the mortals who carried the production. With the entrance of the first two of the four lovers, Lysander and Hermia, the breathing canopy ceased. This gave the impression that the living, breathing forest was not only an environmental convention, but also a psychological one as well. Only until the harmony achieved in the Act III quartet was achieved, did the forest canopy respond to the mortals. The lovers were foreigners in this space, but it is through it that they became aligned.

This clash with nature is embodied perfectly through Shawn Mathey’s Lysander, and in fact, the entire foursome manages to highlight their character’s faults whilst still remaining endearing. Mathy’s able, clarion tenor effortlessly weaved through the role, despite very real demands. This matched perfectly with Elizabeth DeShong’s stunning Hermia, who sang the role with a simply magnificent color. Here is a mezzo-soprano who can sing throughout her range with the utmost retention of her core sound. Combined with her commitment to the physicality, it made for a moving, memorable performance.

On the other side of the quartet, Lucas Meachem sang Demetrius with a rich, enveloping baritone and a charmingly boorish interpretation.

To the credit of the Lyric Opera, the biographies of each performer presented specific insights to each character, as ascribed by the individual performer. In Meachem’s bio he asserted that it is folly to succumb to the temptation of “barking” this role. This perspective proved beneficial, as Meachem’s full, legato approach conveyed an assuredness to Demetrius, rather than a pompous, overbearing quality. His balanced, masculine voice is one to remember.

Another captivating quote in the biographies belongs to Peter Rose. He asserts that Bottom’s enthusiasm to interpret every part must not be played for ego, but rather for an excitement for the success of the production. This character choice proves to be prudent as his interpretation of Bottom was one of the standouts in the entire production. Functioning as the alpha-male in the theatre troupe, Rose sang Bottom with ease and a lack of pretense. Never playing the moment solely for the laugh, his choices for the drama-within-the drama let the larger ideas of the opera take form.

Indeed, the entire comedy troupe succeeded in contributing to the whole, rather than give in to the temptation of the individual moment. This resulted in an inspired dialogue that had the feel of improvisation. This was no doubt the intention of Britten, but it is not easily executed.

The orchestra itself, led by Rory Macdonald, functioned as its own character. Never overpowering , the orchestra was deliciously supportive and distinct in its role.

When, In Act III, the rehearsal-within-a-play became a play-within-a-play, and a bland wall swept into the extreme downstage area, it was somewhat disappointing to be cut off from the openness allowed in the first two acts. The mini-play itself was remarkable, but the finish seemed to be the inverse expectation for a finale.

This was eased, however, by the elegant singing of Craig Irvin as Theseus and Kelley O’Connor as Hippolyta. Presented as a 1960’s Camelot-inspired duke and duchess, O’connor’s bright contralto and Irvin’s affable, stentorian Duke made for a good-natured bourgeoisie.

In what was a risky staging, the orchestra and players were given the freedom to breath, and the drama was allowed to unfold in the most natural manner. This production is a triumph, and, as a representation of opera-as-theater, it cannot be dismissed.

 

Bottom line: Success under a canopy.

 

Robert Drake

 

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Production Credits

Conductor: Rory Macdonald
Director: Neil Armfield
Designer: Dale Ferguson
Lighting Designer: Damien Cooper
Choreographer: Denni Sayers

Cast

Oberon: David Daniels
Tytania: Anna Christy
Bottom: Peter Rose
Helena: Erin Wall
Hermia: Elizabeth DeShong
Lysander: Shawn Mathey
Demetrius: Lucas Meachem
Flute: Keith Jameson
Peter Quince: Sam Handley 
Hippolyta: Kelley O'Connor
Theseus: Craig Irvin
Snout: James Kryshak
Snug: Wilbur Pauley
Puck: Esteban Andres Cruz
Starveling: Paul Scholten 

FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THIS PRODUCTION:http://www.lyricopera.org/