The translucent skin of reality! This beautiful phrase from program note by the director of this production Neil Armfield, perfectly encapsulates the experience of dreams embodied in Armfield’s vision of Britten’s magical opera. The green, shimmering, moonlit forest designed by Dale Ferguson envelopes the entire opera up until the final scene. Oberon, the king of the fairies, hovers malevolently over the stage in a swing, while the sea of fairies, played by innumerable children, sways and surges below at Titania’s behest. This is the dreamworld within which the quartet of lovers and the sextet of mechanicals try to make sense of their emotions and their aspirations. And we are never sure whether the dream is more real than reality – indeed, we end up questioning whether “reality” is a useful expression at all.
The bewildering confusion between dream and reality begins before one takes one’s seat in the theatre. You have to negotiate a building site and enter the Adelaide Festival Theatre by a side entrance (how like slipping into dream that is!), and put on a mask, so that it seems that the audience is itself on stage. When the Mechanicals refer to a bergamasque at the end of the opera, we suddenly realise that of course we expect the actors to wear masks and the audience not to. This inversion of normality is then carried over into all aspects of the production – the forest’s trees are upside down; Britten’s score makes endless use of inversion, sometimes literal, sometimes distorted; and the Mechanicals, the part of the cast least likely to sing opera, stage a brilliant spoof of 19th century opera for the duke of Athens. (Athens?! A place famously surrounded by misty forests?)
I would hazard that a good number of the audience had seen the amazing production by Baz Luhrman mounted several times by Opera Australia. So It was hard not to make comparisons with Armfield’s, particularly as he quotes the stage business of Oberon in a swing from that production. (Or am I dreaming? Was it Moshinky’s production that had the swing?) Luhrman’s production completely lacked the subtle blurring of all the edges which Armfield achieves – Luhrman doesn’t really do subtlety – and his dreamscape was one where things proceed with absolute clarity but with no logic at all, which is another perfectly valid way of communicating the experience of dreaming. In both productions the musical experiences faithfully followed the conception of the directors. In the Opera Australia production Michael Chance, as Oberon, filled the house with vast vocal clarity, while here in Adelaide, the young American countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen sang with great beauty and delicacy, but so softly that conductor Paul Kildea had to reduce even Britten’s transparent scoring to a whisper. And this delicacy imbued all the singing and playing, so much that when the orchestra did play a little more robustly at the start of the third act it was almost a relief. The dreamlike uncertainly that the pervading softness of the score evoked was underlined by tempi which were all just slightly on the slow side. This gave rise to a certain disconnect that is also part of the experience of dreams, but which meant that some of the most telling moments in the score, such as the quartet “and I have found my Helena like a jewel” lacked the rapture I like to hear.
The two most complete performances to my mind were those of Warwick Fyfe as Bottom, and Sally-Anne Russell as Hermia. Fyfe’s Bottom realised the complexities of the character of Bottom, especially as Pyramus in the mini-opera and as the man who dreams he is an ass having Titania for a lover, in such a commanding way that he seemed to be the main character in the whole opera. I was put in mind of Verdi’s Falstaff. He used his gorgeous baritone with extraordinary variety. Sally-Anne Russell portrayed Hermia’s character with complete conviction, and her voice had a trueness, a warm clarity, that I missed in some of the other women’s voices.
The cast of this opera is very large, and I’d like to talk about them all, but suffice it to mention a few highlights here and there. Mark Coles-Smith was a vibrant, spontaneous Puck (a speaking part in Britten’s opera) who seemed to embody all the energy missing from the floating dreamworld. At the end of the opera he continues the parody by jumping off the raised stage, like Tosca at the end of Puccini’s opera. Andrew Goodwin as Lysander has a really beautiful voice, but acted more palely that his opposite number, James Clayton as Demetrius. Rachelle Durkin was fantastic as Titania, and negotiated Britten’s fairy queen coloratura well, but her singing was marred by just too much vibrato, so that occasionally the melismatic writing became blurred. And Louis Hurley as Flute, who is at first abashed by his ambiguous sexuality, became an assured opera tenor in the play within the play.
Finally, then, a word about the play within the play that the Mechanicals stage for the Duke and Duchess of Athens at the end of the opera. Suddenly a proscenium descends from the flats and hides the shimmering forest for the first time. Here we are in the real world, not the dream… or are we? Britten translates Shakespeare’s spoof of am-dram into a parody of operatic clichés from Verdi, Puccini, Mozart, even Handel. Armfield’s conception of this scene was remarkable – these Mechanicals, as far away from the sophistication of acting as could be, are dressed in costumes they could not possibly have access to, and perform in a consummate fashion inconceivable on a few rehearsals. In this scene Armfield pays tribute to his long love affair with opera, and the scene and an unusual warmth about it as a result. Though the stage audience, consisting of the lovers and the ducal pair, mocked it, the real (?) audience accepted them completely.
The layers of the translucent veil of reality in this production left the audience reeling as they walked out of the theatre and failed to recognise our masked friends in the foyer. Were we the ones on stage? On what stage?
2021 Adelaide Festival
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
by Benjamin Britten
Director Neil Armfield
Venue: Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre | King William Street, Adelaide SA
Dates: 26 Feb – 3 March 2021
Tickets: $289 – $60
A co-production of Houston Grand Opera, Chicago Lyric Opera and Canadian Opera Company, presented by Adelaide Festival in association with Adelaide Symphony Orchestra