A Midsummer Night's Dream | Opera AustraliaLeft - Lorina Gore and Tobias Cole. Cover - Tobias Cole and Tyler Coppin. Photos - Jeff Busby

Filmmaker and opera director Baz Luhrmann has always shown a penchant for the spectacular. He has a taste for Bollywood and Italian grand opera, and does not shy away from romantic idealism, visual pageantry and musical ecstasy. With Shakespeare’s play as libretto and Benjamin Britten’s pristine music as score, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a rich vehicle for Luhrmann’s imagination. This reprise of his 1993 Dream at the Sydney Opera House, is fresh and contemporary, set to endure in the repertoire of Opera Australia.

Composed in 1960 by Britten with co-librettist tenor Peter Pears, the opera uses about half of Shakespeare’s text to create a simplified version of the story. It is a fine reworking that retains the poetry and magic of the play and highlights the drama with superb music.

The starting point for Luhrmann’s interpretation is the tussle between Oberon, king of the fairies, and Tytania his queen, over one of her attendants, a beautiful Indian child. Although the lovers are still referred to as Athenians, as in Shakespeare’s play, the wider setting is clearly colonial India. It is India that provides the colours and motifs and culture of the fairy world that dominates this production, as sprites and fairies, gods and demons meddle in the course of true love.

Desisgners Catherine Martin and Bill Marron and lighting designer Nigel Levings have washed the production in a fabulous palette of colour: costumes and filters in magenta, emerald, saffron and Indian blue. An ethereal effect is achieved by subtle tonal gradations of colour in the costumes and body paint. The fairy world is unchanging in its set and costumes, yet everything is in constant motion. Not just the fluid movements and contortions of the fairies, but the patterning of lights across the stage, the sparkling fireworks and hand-held lights, the smoke of incense weaving spells between the lovers.

The gorgeous set, and central image, is a Victorian bandstand with a difference, sporting an eastern dome and set under a potent moon. The bandstand, constructed on three levels, reaches down into the nether world of a fairy grotto and up into the rarified regions of the gods. In the middle layer sits the orchestra, uniformed and partially screened from the audience. Joining the three levels are stepladders, the highest one retractable and accessible only to deities. This setting provides the perfect acoustic dynamics for the orchestra, lifts and focuses the gaze of the audience and opens up physical and metaphorical dimensions for the performers.

The bandstand is a visual manifestation of the score. The image reflects Britten’s three-tiered instrumentation: harps and percussion for the fairies, strings for the lovers and brass and woodwind for the ‘mechanicals’. The visual and aural cues make the opera easy to follow and the shifts of scene harmonious. At moments, the instrumental motifs act in counterpoint, as in the transcendent passage when Tytania serenades Bottom the Weaver in his ass’s costume. Sensuality and fantasy go hand in hand with buffoonery and the incredible athleticism of these operatic performers.

Lorina Gore, as Tytania, beguiles and mesmerises with her sinuous movement and glorious spiraling soprano voice. Counter-tenor Tobias Cole, as Oberon, embodies authority and magnetism, his remarkable diamond voice chilling and spell-binding. A tour de force. Master of ceremonies Puck (Tyler Coppin) whirls and flies, a mercurial shape-shifter, a blue-skinned Krishna, legs and arms akimbo, a pivot on which all turns. The omnipresent chorus of nimble and mischievous fairies completes the illusion.

The four lovers in the cream linen of the Athenians, a dull contrast with the fairy garb, maintain an alarming agility, running up and down stairs and chasing each other round the stage as they execute their vocal roles without missing a beat. All four give nuanced performances, but most memorable is Helena (Lisa Harper-Brown) for her comic physicality and sonorous soprano voice. The most moving moment of the opera is the ‘reconciliation quartet’ when the lovers sing a repeated phrase in canon, moving slowly up the staircase. Exquisite.

The third estate, led with strength and subtlety by Conal Coad as the overbearing Bottom the Weaver, is also beige and human and even more imperfect. The lead-up to the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe, the play-within-a-play – or in this case, opera within an opera – is perfectly framed within the fantasy setting and highlighted by the mocking antics of the fairies. It builds to a hilarious opera buffa in which Graeme McFarlane as Flute the bellows-mender morphs into a fey Thisbe, a deliciously mad scene inspired by Peter Pears’ original interpretation.

If there is any jarring in this production, it is in the opera’s construction. Theseus, Duke of Athens, and Queen Hippolyta appear in the final act to be married and view the staging of Pyramus and Thisbe. Since the opening of Shakespeare’s play with these characters was cut by Britten, it seems incongruous to introduce them at this stage and the spell, so brilliantly woven, starts to wear thin. A small irritation in an otherwise unforgettable experience.

Opera Australia presents
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
by Benjamin Britten

Director Baz Luhrmann

Venue: State Theatre, Arts Centre, Melbourne
Dates: Sat 4, Wed 8, Sat 11, Tues 14, Thurs 16 and Sat 18 December, 2010
Times: 7.30pm, except 11 Dec at 1pm.
Tickets: $92 - $229
Bookings: www.opera-australia.org.au

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