Curtain call at Manhattan School of Music for Benjamin Britten's "A Midsummer Night's Dream"
We lost count of the number of times we have seen the Shakespeare play but the production we saw last night of Benjamin Britten's operatic adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream best captured the spirit of the work. Shakespeare's text in iambic pentameter has its own music and, in our opinion, does not inspire memorable vocal lines. However, Britten's instrumental music creates a soundscape that evokes a world of fantasy and magic. The opening scene gave the chamber orchestra, so well conducted by esteemed Maestro George Manahan, frequent glissandi that tickled the ear.
The success of the production rests firmly on the professional level performances of the Manhattan School of Music Graduate Opera Theater and the Director John de los Santos who has a long list of professional successes but is known to us mainly through his work at MSM and New Camerata Opera. His work on this piece is marked by originality, creativity, and imagination. It is also marked by some ribaldry and naughtiness of which Shakespeare would have surely approved. (Ask us about the toilet plunger and the ass' ass.)
We did not miss the opening scene of the play which takes place in an Athenian courtroom. The opera begins in the forest, the land where fairies lead their magical lives and play tricks on mortals. The gods in Wagner's Ring Cycle display as many characterological defects as the humans; similarly the fairies in Britten's opera are beset by romantic problems just like the mortals.
Titania, played by the tiny powerhouse soprano Sofia Gotch-Caruana, does not want to relinquish the changeling infant to her demanding husband Oberon, played with appropriate majesty by Haolun Zhang whose ethereal counter-tenor, effectively accompanied by the celeste, fulfilled the role with excellence.
The lovely Hermia (mezzo-soprano Ya Gao) has fled Athens with her beloved Lysander (tenor Isaiah Traylor) because of parental disapproval. The couple are so adorable together that we are cheering for them right from the start.
In contrast, poor Helena (soprano Madison Marie Fitzpatrick, well remembered from last year's Caccini opera) is pursuing Demetrius (baritone Ross Macatangay) who rejects her because he is in love with Hermia and wants nothing more than to take Hermia away from Lysander.
That Shakespeare created this romantic mess five centuries ago gives us pause. His work endures because of his keen insight into human behavior which seems not to have changed in half a millenium! How do you think this romantic situation can be resolved? By the help of the fairies of course!
Oberon enlists the help of the sprite Puck, a non-singing role that was well spoken and extremely well-danced by Johannes Linneballe who made use of the entire stage as his playground. We saw no choreographer listed in the program; shall we assume that this gifted member of the graduate vocal program self-choreographed?
Shakespeare himself said "The course of true love never did run smooth"; so, of course, Puck's performance of Oberon's instructions is mistaken and the bewildered Helena winds up fighting off two lovers and poor Hermia is abandoned. Of course, things are set aright but the complications, emphasized by the music, keep us involved.
Thinking about Wagner's Ring Cycle and the gods interfering with the lives of mortals, we notice also a setting apart of a less genteel and less educated working class, i.e. the "rustics" who win a competition to provide entertainment for the wedding of Theseus Duke of Athens (the smooth-voiced baritone Donghoon Kang) and Hippolyta Queen of the Amazons (the regal Xiaowei Fang).
The six "rustics" provided comic relief and a welcome break from the romantic struggles of the Athenian upper classes. Outstanding among them is Benjamin R. Sokol as Bottom the Weaver who wants to play every part in the play within the play, another grand insight of the Bard. Don't we all know someone like that? Mr. Sokol garnered plenty of laughs during the process of casting Pyramus and Thisbe but even more when he is transformed into an ass and becomes the love object of Titania who has been tricked by her manipulative husband. Did we mention how well he sang?
The other rustics were also excellent: William Velasco de Jesús as Flute, reluctantly playing Thisbe in drag, Xingxiang Liu as Snout, Gregory Gropper as Starveling, Jon Carr as Snug, and Liyuan Liu as Quince, trying to direct the project. Each performer evinced a different personality.
In contrast, the fairies comprised a unified chorus and worked more as an ensemble. We heard Suzana Ikeda, Margaux Frohlich, Nadine Nagyeong Li, Abigail Williams, Zixuan Zhang, and Morena Galan.
In the final scene, order is restored and Britten has his fun lampooning the golden age of opera with the performance by the rustics of "Pyramus and Thisbe" including murder and suicide. The bored Athenians gently decline to see the Epilogue. "All's well that ends well", as they say. All are successfully matched and we have been royally entertained by this superlative cast. We are left hoping that they enjoyed themselves as much as we did.
Let us not fail to credit the excellent costume design of Ashley Soliman. The fairies were fantastical with extravagant attire whilst the Athenians were costumed in contemporary streetwear with the rustics in contemporary workmen's attire. The Duke and his bride were appropriately elegant. Abbey Wiker's scenic design was simple but effective with multi-leveled playing areas and vertical sliding elements that altered perspective.
We are also left reflecting upon how often Shakespeare's works have inspired operas. The ones that came to mind first are Verdi's use of Macbeth, Othello, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. We also thought of Thomas' Hamlet. We will think upon this more and invite you Dear Reader to make any additions in the comments below. Obviously Italian opera of the 19th c. had far more interesting vocal lines which we attribute to the musicality of the language, as opposed to Shakespeare's iambic pentameter.
© meche kroop