Saturday 11 June 2011

A Midsummer Night's Dream - ENO @ The Coliseum

There are two dichotomous schools of thought when it comes to opera direction - an artform (sometimes unfairly) renowned for its stuffiness, snobbery and over-intellectualism.  The first, like last week's (flawed) Go Traviata!, intends to dispel these views of the genre by striving to make opera accessible to all.  By contrast, the second school conforms to operatic misconceptions by smothering the plot in gratuitous pretention and over-complication.

Unfortunately, this production of Britten's masterful opera falls into the latter school - literally.  Not only does Alden's direction confuse the plot, it loses Britten's own intenions for the opera.

Rather than set the opera in an enchanted forest as expected, Alden shoehorns it into a schoolyard setting.  The notion behind this is to reflect Britten's "lifelong relationship with school and schooldays" and, presumably by extension, schoolboys - the crude 'BOYS' sign above the doorway is a clear indication of this male dominated, homoerotic world.  Innocence and experience is a key theme of much of Britten's work, from his operas to his settings of William Blake's poetry.  As such the schoolyard setting almost makes sense. 

Taking inspiration from the life of the composer is a clever and relevant approach to direction.  But instead of focusing on the plot of the opera, Alden focuses too much on Britten himself, thereby ruining the production.  Britten had "always loved the Midsummer Night's Dream" and in his opera it is the magical dream-realm of the fairies that he chose to emphasise.  This is most prominent in the music: from his choice of an all boy chorus and Oberon as alien counter-tenor, to the archaic Purcellian influence in the melodic ornamentation and ethereal use of percussion and celesta.  However, by re-setting the opera in gritty, bleak reality, Alden has all but ignored these elements of Britten's work, brushing over moments in the libretto which clearly allude to the magical setting.  This only highlighted the jarring conflict between Britten's and Alden's artistic intentions - and in this case, Britten's are the more important.  Even simple stage directions were neglected, leading to much confusion.  Other moments were overly static, threatening to bore many members of the audience.  As such, the schoolyard setting simply didn't make sense in the context of the opera.

On top of this was the addition of a random man following the action on-stage, as "long-forgotten memories of his schooldays come back to him in the form of a dream".  His inclusion was a distracting intrusion into the plot and his later reveal as Theseus was a redundant attempt to frame the dramatic action.

The pretentious direction clearly bypassed the audience who spent much of the interval fervently flicking through the programme for explanation - an audience which was considerably thinner in the second half. 

But those who did leave missed out on another act of Britten's sumptuous score, performed extremely well by the cast and orchestra.  As ever, diction was superfluous to some singers - but Iestyn Davies' performance as Oberon was exceptional.  Allan Clayton and Benedict Nelson too were excellent as Lysander and Demetrius respectively.  The mechanicals' mini-production of Pyramus and Thisby was probably amongst the rudest and overly sexualised plays yet seen on the Coliseum stage, but provided some much needed colour and humour to the opera.  Adam Silverman's stark lighting design must also be applauded, giving brilliant light and unnerving shadow to an otherwise dull grey set.

For Britten scholars, this production provided an intriguing collision of his work and his personal life.  Yet as a piece of storytelling, Alden's artistic concept belied Britten's work in an otherwise musically brilliant production.