The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

HGO: Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream. A restoration of all innocence and mirth. 23.1.2009 (repost from listserv)

This was Houston Grand Opera's second go at Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream, one of only three full length Britten operas that I know the company to have produced thus far. It was last seen here sixteen years ago. A gently aqua tinted green color pervaded the entire set for very much of the entire evening. Rear and side drops with drawings in black etched on them gave the set design somewhat of a Japanese feel, as did also perhaps a wide swath of green vellum, crossing stage from left to right. Quite brilliant touch, just somewhat opaque trapping as this was, it got physically dragged down to cover Tytania and Bottom-as-ass in their slumber together in Act Two.

The first several characters to enter the stage were Puck (Jon M. Hill in an only speaking part), Oberon, king of the fairies and Tytania, his somewhat sparring wife. Houston favorite Laura Claycomb played Tytania, with close to ideally clear, agile line and vocalism, excusing just a little uncertainty around the break and several not quite fully supported high notes. The only thing that may have held up Claycomb from having more than mildly qualified success with Tytania was perhaps a mild or perceived lack of warmth. As more relevant further down, she was also working in atmosphere more cerebrally achieved than not or otherwise. She was costumed very attractively in luminous blue and white, embellished with much fluff and frills, with locks of her naturally red curly hair flowing down her back. Claycomb was ideally witty with again Bottom as ass, in their central absurd love scene together.

Welsh countertenor Iestyn Davies (HGO debut) vocally enjoyed one of just a short string of unqualified successes with casting here. Less ostentatiously costumed than is James Bowman on dvd of the Peter Hall production, he gave his part the air of mystery, contemplation, and aloofness in a way much of his part calls for. His vocal production was about the entirely most even of the entire cast and could have been identified by a few of us with that of Alfred Deller. I hope it not heresy to say either that I found his more subdued, thus more introspective, mysterious interpretation of Oberon, in acting also, to be mildly preferable to the blowsier James Bowman on the wonderful Haitink/Peter Hall dvd.. This was altogether a very fine piece of work from Davies.

The quartet then later sextet of lovers or couples was half successful. Best of all was the lyrical and ardent, always musical and most often in tune Lysander of Norman Reinhardt, heard earlier this season as Benedict in Berlioz. He also looked and sounded the most convincingly animated during the difficult quarrel scene of Act Two. This was overall a part that suited him a little better than did Benedict.

Least satisfactory was the blustery and pitch-insecure Demetrius of Liam Bonner, who sounded attractive enough when singing lyrically, but otherwise was really pushing it and for too much of his part. Ryan McKinny as the Duke of Athens Theseus, almost noble enough in appearance, was lacking in enough authority for the part, with insubstantial legato and weak low notes.

Among the women, I was probably happiest with the Hermia of Kate Van Kooten (HGO debut). Very charming in appearance and most convincingly in love of the two women among the first two couples, her voice and singing, perhaps just slightly rich for what expectations are for the part, had lovely color to it, with especially rich low notes and supple phrasing of her music. I just detected just a few pitch problems toward the end of her performance here last night. Marie Lenormand started off as Helena with less control of pitch, often below it somewhat more than fortunately how she ended; she was (in addition to Puck) also the least attractively costumed of everybody on stage. The two women looked indistinguishable in class from the rustics on stage, Bottom, Quince, Flute, etc. One easily gets the point. However, without further insight, contrast between the two classes of people falls almost immediately a little flat.

Leann Sandel-Pantaleo sounded somewhat more authentic contralto as Hippolyta here than for Ursule in the Berlioz last fall. It had me wondering if she might have been feeling indisposed somehow then. Phrasing her music sensitively, she looked and sounded trim, sufficiently aristocratic in this part.

As for the rustics, Matthew Rose (HGO debut), other than a bit uncertain in pitch at first then even later on for a few low notes, was the droll and wonderfully endearing Bottom. He enjoyed shilling to the hilt the death of Pyramus to the great enjoyment of everybody. Otherwise, he bantered about and sang animatedly enough among his team of six rustics without on purpose either in acting or vocally overshadowing anyone else - least of all the very lyrical Flute of veteran tenor Steven Cole, and the hilarious Snout and sprechstimme Wall (in Pyramus and Tisbe) of Jon Kolbet. Though with acting matching well enough with the rest, the practically also pitch-sprechstimme Quince of Robert Pomakov was a washout. There was so much rattle to his pitch that it was seldom easy to discern any.

The act of Pyramus and Thisbe in Act 3, to entertain the aristocrats, was a huge send-up for the entire hall, and for things that work this way downtown, was for the most part very convincingly funny, as opposed to the look-at-us, we're funny brand of humor in two recent runs of Mozart comedies here, Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni - very distracting in both. Since a wonderfully funny Barber of Seville here in 2004, fully appreciated by all, I do not recall an episode of such genuine and good laugh-out-loud humor as I found in Pyramus and Thisbe last night.

The skit animated Patrick Summers as well, though he tended to be quite good for all three scenes for the rustics - only on the dry or academic side for them during Act Two. At the beginning of Act One, the orchestra sounded insufficient in its lower reaches. This robbed the music of a necessary sense of its having overtones that even in notes not more than implied in the harmonic texture must somehow at least seem to land on the ear for Britten's music not to sound dry or academic. How would even orchestral forces as such, augmented a bit, be able to savor the Mahlerian (disclaimer::not led astray here by seeing the Visconti film) reaches of Death in Venice? Britten, by then, the end of his career, had very well cultivated an internationalized style and become the richer for it. Even in its chamber music sonorities, Midsummer Night's Dream helps pave the way to his underrated Owen Wingrave and Death in Venice.

Summers was at his best, accompanying Davies and Claycomb, Oberon’s noble aria in Act One, "I know a bank", after manner of Purcell, included. He gave good ear to the second episode for lovers in Act One (an act that is organized in rondo form), especially with the anxiety Hermia and Lysander express therein. This and episodes of writing for celesta and strings revealed an ear for color, though other passages through the evening sounded both tonally and rhythmically a little flabby. Undifferentiated as to the harmonic changes that occur in it, that is without sufficient nuance, the prelude to Act Three went sour in intonation from the strings of the HGO orchestra. Playing from the brass, which is to be often pungent in color sometimes came across as timid, though otherwise all well played, in terms of accuracy, pitch, etc.

How flat in perspective and lacking a bit in depth was a stiffly conducted final chorus right before the end of the opera, that should instead, marked 'slow and solemn', should be succulent in its tonal richness. Thanks in part to Summers, the best moment for childrens' chorus (otherwise lacking courage with accents) came at the end of Act One with a well animated, practically Stravinskian "You spotted snakes." Overall, I would gauge that Summers got the Britten about seventy percent right, but to avoid the hazard of this music coming across as two-dimensional, some further effort was needed. It was also considerably unwise, not to allow an interval between Acts One and Two. For, in fact, those who do not know the score at all, there was hardly at all any discernible break at all between Acts One and Two - indeed very unwise.

What went the extra step of the way in making Midsummer Night's Dream quite the scuess it was at its opening here was the mostly well gauged production of Nell Armfield. Mentioned already was the faux pas in costuming in particular one or two of the lovers, which for Helena, looked as though it could have come off a rack at Ross or Marshall's. Though including demonic looking Oberon and just a bit over-the-top for Puck that way, stage direction was naturalistically very effective. All moved in as natural and mostly unassuming manner as one would have desired on the minimalist set. Gratuitous underlining of material was gratefully close to nonexistent. Lighting for one scene, incisively conducted by Summers, with infusion of the green on stage by bright white light - the chastisement of Puck by Oberon in Act Two - was very effective. In the context of so much else, the lighting here was even startling as well.

For condition the economy it is in and Britten's writing in this case that shows significant departure from the more populist style of his Peter Grimes and Billy Budd, Midsummer Night's Dream gratefully received a quite full house. After the full shenanigans of Pyramus and Thisbe in Act Three, the audience vociferously showed their appreciation at curtain calls, including for seventh rustic, border collie Buddy, who during Pyramus and Thisbe indulged us with, ad lib, a moment or two of barking. If only singers ….

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