A Midsummer Night's Dream

Guido Martin-Brandis 27 February 2010

(Shadwell Opera) St Giles’, Castle Street, Cambridge – 25th-26th February


Shakespeare and opera have always been uncomfortable bedfellows – the question of what music can add to the finest plays ever written is a daunting question for a composer to answer. Very few composers have managed to set Shakespeare with unequivocal success – Rossini and Verdi come instantly to mind, but they were both composing to a translated Libretto. In English Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra and Walton’s Troilus and Cressida are both noble attempts and contain some wonderful moments even if the music cannot ultimately live up to the quality of the words. More recently Ad├Ęs’ Tempest has made a splash in the operatic world but the music is a huge letdown to many who admire the rest of his oeuvre. It is perhaps only Britten who has convincingly set Shakespeare in the original, doing so in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, his opera of 1960.

As a reviewer it’s never pleasant to feel at odds with the majority view of the audience and one hates to seem niggardly – let it be noted that this performance received rapturous applause from the audience, but I couldn’t help but feel a little underwhelmed. First lets start with the positives. Undoubtedly the most successful moments in the production were the ensemble comic scenes involving the famous play within a play – fantastic comedy singing and acting were on show here from all the cast members involved in these scenes. Tristan Hambleton was a hilarious and extraordinarily well characterised Bottom, his avian gait and mannerisms like that of some ridiculous emu. Particularly memorable also in these scenes were Matt Sandy as Flute and Johnny Langridge as Snout.

The rest of the production was less successful. The staging was in some ways a complete disaster in that much of the time ninety percent of the audience could barely see anything – in an opera that requires lots of characters to sleep on the floor (in combination with the venue for the production being a church), one would imagine that a raised stage would be the obvious solution. Instead, much of the time the cast were singing completely out of sight of all but the closest audience members, rendering large tracts of the action vitiated and moribund. In other respects the staging was decent, the lack of set being made up for by the chorus of Fairies providing atmosphere and a constantly shifting backdrop for the drama.

The cast were of variable quality and although every singer had moments of brilliance, overall one felt the voices were not quite up to Britten’s demanding vocal writing. The major exception was Maud Millar as Tytania whose youthful lyric soprano was perfectly suited to the role – she sung with a great beauty and expressivity throughout – surely a sign of great things to come. The counter tenor role of Oberon was taken by Tom Verney whose voice was certainly very pretty but failed to rise above a mezzo piano throughout the entire performance which somewhat hampered the dramatic possibilities of his performance. Ssegawa-Ssekintu Kiwanuka’s delivery of the non sung part of Puck was at times so mannered that it was difficult to understand what he was saying.

The orchestra, conducted by Aiden Coburn seemed extremely tentative and subdued at the outset but got stronger as the opera progressed and slowly Britten’s glorious orchestral writing was allowed to speak and sing – in the later portions some lovely clarinet and cello solos shone through the texture.

Overall then, a frustrating production as some aspects were so very good; many others left much to be desired.

Guido Martin-Brandis