Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Chicago Opera Theater

Scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Photo: Chicago Opera Theater)
Benjamin Britten: A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Libretto by Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears.
Chicago Opera Theater
Conducted by Alexander Platt. Directed by Andrei Serban.
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In its recent performances of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream Chicago Opera Theater affirms its reputation for carefully gauged and well cast productions. Already from the subdued opening accompanied by muted strings an underlying tension is evident in the darting figure of Puck, a spoken role assumed in this production by the actor Jason Griffin. The movements of all the characters in this production are matched consistently to an orchestral or vocal expression, emphasizing thus the union of choreography with lyrical and declamatory effect. Chicago Opera Theater’s presentation divides the action and emotional entanglements of Britten’s three acts into two parts. Soon after the start of the first of these the royal fairy couple, Oberon and Tytania, enter in formal dress. Their disagreement over a youth taken into the service of the queen, yet desired by Oberon, fuels an initial conflict that — by the time of its resolution — will bear on the fates of the other pairs of young lovers in the piece as well.
In the roles of fairy king and queen Tobias Cole and Danielle de Niese exhibit regal bearing alternating with bemused detachment or boundless passion. Britten’s writing for countertenor and coloratura soprano is admirably fulfilled by this pair, each sinking into the dignity or erotic mask of the respective role with convincing vocal and dramatic involvement. Cole shows an especially effortless and graceful approach to the sung and declaimed line of Oberon, while de Niese’s skillful vocal approach underscores her unexpected later attachment to the rustic Bottom.
The two pairs of young lovers — Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius — are sung by Allyson McHardy and Patrick Miller, Laura Whalen and Ian Greenlaw, respectively. In their fine delineation of character in both singing and acting the four lovers negotiate the amorous confusion caused by wrongful application of the herb on the part of Puck. Their youthful exuberance and quarreling parallel the erotic abandon of Tytania after Puck’s machinations lead her to awaken and fall enamored of Bottom wearing the head of an ass.
In this production the dreams, thoughts, and emotions of characters are intermittently suggested by film clips projected on the rear part of the stage. The pink, purple, and green colors — as well as “nodding” flowers — suggest the stylized hues of a woodland while directing focus to the emotional tangles played out and righted within their midst. Most of the stage content in Part One of Chicago Opera Theater’s presentation, up to the point of confusion of nearly all leading roles, covers the first two acts of Britten’s opera. Although there are moments — especially toward the close of this Part One — where Britten’s writing for the text lags in inspiration, the forces conducted here by Alexander Platt keep a consistent musical and dramatic fluidity.
The imaginative movements assigned to the fairies of Tytania’s and Oberon’s realm for this production — riding on scooters, sporting hula-hoops, executing cartwheels — are in keeping with the fanciful spirit of the text. Yet these actions can also detract from the simultaneous performance of the principals, especially when the fairies run out into the audience and shine their flashlights in a cliché maneuver. The buffoonery engaged in by the collected rustics is here both well-timed and humorously acted. Noteworthy among these singers are the Bottom/Pyramus of Kevin Burdette and the Flute/Thisbe of Tracy Wise.
By the close of their play-within-a-play at the court of Theseus in Part Two, the lovers are appropriately re-aligned and disagreements have been settled. Puck’s closing promise to “restore amends” recalls his earlier movements in Part One of this production, during which he wove together hanging chains as a symbol of the lovers’ entanglements. The twofold musical and dramatic resolution of the play and the play within has a renewed significance as this Puck unites both action and indulgence from Chicago Opera Theater’s memorable dream.
Salvatore Calomino
Madison, Wisconsin