I often wonder what exactly people mean when they say they “love opera.” Usually it means they saw Boheme/Butterfly/Traviata once, and it made them cry, or that they’ve seen Boheme/Butterfly/Traviata hundreds of times, and if they’re not still crying, they at least enjoy complaining that the golden age is past. I wonder how many people are actually interested in drama expressed musically. My latest reason for wondering this is that everyone assures me that Festival Opera is taking a huge risk in staging Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. They probably are, since I saw a number of empty seats on opening night last night (once again, Festival Opera kindly invited me to attend). Neither Britten nor A Midsummer Night’s Dream are exactly unknown quantities, I would have thought, and it’s hard to believe we live in a world in which that combo is not self-recommending, but apparently we do, such is our fallen state. But then I have only realized this past year, based on various comments and reviews I’ve read, that Britten is apparently like coconut, in that people tend to love him or avoid him, with little middle ground.
If you have any interest at all in Britten in particular or opera in general, I urge you to head on down to Walnut Creek for the remaining performances of Midsummer Night’s Dream (which are Tuesday August 12, Friday August 15, or a matinee on Sunday August 17). Despite a few reservations, I thoroughly enjoyed the performance, and as I’ve said before this is one of the few Shakespeare-based operas that are worthy of their inspiration. Britten and Pears did a wonderful, intelligent job compressing the play (though I think the opera was trimmed a bit further last night, since I missed a few moments, though my mind might be deceiving me). And if many familiar lines from the play are missing from the libretto, I have to say I have the same experience during regular productions of any of Shakespeare’s plays, which are almost always cut, and not always with this libretto's intelligence and care.
This is the third time I’ve seen this opera staged; the first was at San Francisco Opera several years ago, and the second was at the Met. I’ve been to the Met four times, and the oldest work I’ve seen is Midsummer Night’s Dream; I’ve also seen The Great Gatsby and the first two performances of An American Tragedy, so based on my personal experience I have to say that the Met is clearly a staunch advocate of operas written in English and new American works in particular, which shows you the limitations of relying on one’s personal experience. If only I hadn’t had to call off my New York trip this past spring – I could at least have added an opera in Sanskrit to the list.
I have to say those empty seats I referred to earlier came in handy, since I moved after the first two acts when I realized the people around me were pretty much not going to stop chatting. I’m sorry, but I have to say it – what the hell is wrong with the audiences in Walnut Creek? I can understand the occasional coughing fit, I can even understand occasionally forgetting to turn off your cellphone, but there is absolutely no excuse for talking during a performance, and certainly not for conversations as long and as loud as the ones around me. Don’t let that scare you off, though, since I was assured by friends who sat elsewhere that the audience was courteous in other parts of the house, but someone seriously needs to do something about those people. Given that this is their audience, I really have to salute Festival Opera with gratitude for scheduling one unusual work along with one popular favorite – I would be deliriously happy if San Francisco Opera could match that 50/50 split. Festival Opera deserves the support of the Bay Area’s genuine opera-lovers.
The staging (by conductor Michael Morgan, with Mark Foehringer listed as co-director and choreographer) is simple but had some effective touches, mostly involving the fairies clearing props from the stage or covering or uncovering the lovers or Tytania with long stretches of rose-colored fabric (I know it doesn’t sound like much when you put it that way, but the effect is often charming), or the fairies' barely concealed eye-rolling when Tytania makes them wait on the ass-headed Bottom, a nuance I haven't seen in other productions of the Dream. And I really enjoyed the airborne Puck (an athletic and elegant Kurt Wolfgang Krikorian). The set for all scenes is basic, with a slightly rolling elevated area, some pink cloths hanging down, and a map of the stars as backdrop; a large rose descends when Oberon mentions the magic flower. The look is vaguely late ‘60s/early ‘70s; in general I think it’s a mistake to switch works to this period, because it is already so heavily identified with particular music and slang, though perhaps people always feel that about the period in which they grew up. In any case the switch isn’t too intrusive until the final scene, when the lovers pass around a bong during the performance of Pyramus and Thisby, and Theseus seems to be proposing a threesome to at least one of the couples. If the court isn’t formal and elegant, the crudity and foolishness of the Pyramus interlude loses some of its contrasting humorous effect. Before that scene, though, the costumes look vaguely but not painstakingly of the period, so the total effect is of haphazard whimsical charm, and of a slightly different time and place from our own; it’s just enough to have a slightly and desirably unsettling effect.
The costumes for the fairy chorus in particular are bright and witty and assembled from the fun and funkier reaches of our costuming subconscious; unfortunately I didn’t think they jibed particularly well with the ethereal, haunting music Britten used to slide us into the fairy realm. Also, the fairy chorus was made up of full-grown women, and was not a boys’ choir as specified by Britten. There is a quality – can I just say ethereal again, so soon after using it to describe the fairy music? – that a boys’ choir has that a women’s chorus doesn’t, so a certain delicacy of sound was lost, though the performance was still gorgeous. As Oberon, William Sauerland had a beautiful voice, and he phrased and enunciated with great care, but I couldn’t help feeling his voice was a size too small even for this comparatively intimate venue. Ani Maldjian as Tytania came through beautifully as a last-minute replacement for Marnie Breckenridge, who was called to Glyndebourne to cover a role in the new Eotvoos opera.
I don’t want to shortchange the rude mechanicals (John Minagro as Quince, Jonathan Smucker as Flute, John Bischoff as Snug, Trey Costerisan as Snout, and Joshua Elder as Starveling), especially the vigorous and rolling-toned Kirk Eichelberger as Bottom (some felt he stole the show, and if he didn’t for me, it’s only because I’ve never quite warmed up to Bottom – Eichelberger gave a commanding performance), but I have to say it’s pretty remarkable to see a Dream dominated by the lovers; their quartet at the beginning of Act 3 was particularly soaring and stirring. Nikolas Nackley as Demetrius had to compete with my memories of Nathan Gunn in the role, but he held his own with Stacey Cornell’s Helena of the lovely floating tones; Jessica Mariko Deardorff, who made a surprisingly big impression on me in the minor role of Ines in Festival Opera’s Trovatore last month, solidified the impression favorably with her Hermia. But to me the outstanding member of the excellent set was Jorge Garza as a clarion-voiced Lysander.
Speaking of chatty audiences, the court’s comments during Pyramus and Thisbe always strike me as fairly cruel and annoying, and in this performance they should have toned down the snickering and eye-rolling of the lovers and Theseus and Hippolyta (Igor Vieira and Lauren Groff, respectively, in what must be two of the more thankless roles in the operatic repertoire). I’ve often wished that one of the hempen homespuns would turn to the court and announce, as Holofernes does under similar circumstances in Love’s Labor’s Lost, “This is not generous, not gentle, not humble,” a scathing rebuke that of course sails right over the heads of its targets.
It’s probably needless to say that despite the few reservations I had about this scene, Pyramus and Thisby brought down the house, as it always does, which is actually sort of surprising, since so much of its humor is so sophisticated. When I heard this opera at the Met, the woman next to me assured her increasingly restive son, who was probably around thirteen and made it clear he would have preferred attending the Mets game, that he would absolutely love Pyramus and Thisby, and I thought, hmm, I don’t think so. Finding it funny is very dependent on understanding the theatrical conventions it’s playing off. I mean, if you’re not really familiar with Shakespeare – and Midsummer Night’s Dream is always a popular one to take children to for their first Shakespeare – you don’t necessarily realize that “O grim-looked night! O night with hue so black! / O night, which ever art when day is not! / O night, O night! Alack, alack, alack. . . ” is funny and overdone, because it sounds like what people think Shakespeare sounds like. (In another nice directorial touch, Peter Quince sits below his troupe, mouthing along earnestly, totally engrossed in the awful script he's written.) Britten in this scene brilliantly parodies a variety of operatic styles and conventions, particularly the modernist sprechstimme (I don’t know if that’s technically what Britten is doing, but it’s what the parody sounds like) in Wall’s speeches, and most particularly the bel canto style, beginning its modern resurgence shortly before this opera’s 1960 premiere. Pyramus and Thisbe, a formerly respectable myth which Shakespeare sabotaged for all time, may be a case where getting all the jokes prevents you from seeing how generally appealing something is. Go see for yourself!