Wexford Festival Opera 2021 Review: Le Songe d’un nuit d’été
Shakespeare Like You Have Never Seen Him BeforeBy Alan Neilson
(Photo: Clive Barda)
How does one portray a famous person from history in a work of fiction?
Take for example Ambroise Thomas’ opera “Le Songe d’un nuit d’été.” This opera was written to a libretto by Joseph-Bernard Rosier and Adolphe de Leuven, that premiered in 1850 at Paris’ L’Opéra- Comique, and has just been revived by Wexford Festival Opera. It is a re-imagination of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in which Shakespeare has lost his way, and instead of writing plays, he spends his time drinking and debauching young women in the local taverns with his friend Falstaff. Fortunately, Queen Elizabeth is on hand to save the bard and set him back on the road to becoming the nation’s poet. Obviously, it is a light-hearted work, which among other things finds the Queen in disguise along with her closest friend Olivia enjoying a night out in London’s taverns, and snooping around the woods on a midsummer night where she meets Shakespeare who tries to seduce her.
The cast contains three famous people well known across the globe. Mention any of their names and an image will immediately spring to mind, along with a picture of their personalities, and a long list of associations, even down to the clothes they wore. Of course, in a comic opera nobody would expect them to be realistic representations, or to behave in accordance with our preconceptions, but how far can you move away from their defining characteristics and keep the audience on board? Move too far and you lose the character completely, and worse, risk alienating the audience as they start to focus on what is wrong with the director’s interpretation.
It is a question which the director Walter Le Moli, who had to step down owing to ill health, and his replacement Stefania Panighini had to grapple with.
A Successful Portrait of Elizabeth
In the case of Elizabeth, her character is to a large extent already established by the libretto and is in accordance with commonly held impressions. The directors along with Hasmik Torosyan, who was cast in the role, successfully brought Elizabeth to life. Her patriotic commitment was captured by the determination to establish Shakespeare as a national poet to reflect England’s glory, while her rejection of Shakespeare’s amorous advances, despite being tempted, highlighted her status as the Virgin Queen. Torosyan’s stage presence and regal bearing added further to what was a convincing representation.
Torosyan added to her successful physical portrait of Elizabeth with a wonderful singing display, which enhanced the Queen’s authoritative demeanor. She possesses a strong, versatile mezzo with plenty of stamina and an excellent technique, which she used to produce a performance of real quality. In particular, her bright, complex coloratura displays were stunning in their execution and delivered with apparent ease. Her voice bloomed beautifully to fill the space and there was never a sign of any strain in the voice.
A Well-Crafted Falstaff
Although Falstaff is a fictional creation, the strength and success of the character are such that he has been incorporated into the nation’s psyche. Mention his name and people readily conjure up an image of a loveable old rogue, who possesses a zest for life. Le Moli and Panighini cleverly re-imagined him as a younger version, but with the same essential character, although slightly tweaked to reflect his younger years, still roguish by nature, but less loveable, and he still enjoyed tormenting the innkeeper and his wife. He was played by Tommaso Barrea who successfully portrayed the knight with an energetic and suitably swaggering portrayal.
Barea displayed flexibility and skill in his characterization of Falstaff. He possesses an attractive agile baritone, with a warm clear timbre, which he employed to create a nuanced portrayal. He was amusing and energetic, occasionally boorish but always a very human character, and never descended into cliché. When confronted by the Queen in the third Act, his attempts to lie his way out of a tricky situation were quite amusing, and showed off his neat phrasing and ability to convincingly spin out a good story.
A Controversial Shakespeare
The same cannot be said for Sébastien Guèze who was cast in the role of Shakespeare. The fact we know so little of the poet’s personality does not afford the directors more leeway in how he can be portrayed. Rather the opposite is true, they would have been wise to have trodden a little more carefully. Having him lounging around taverns drunk, is not a problem. Many great men have succumbed to the temptation, but there are many ways of playing a drunk: they can be garrulous, playful, depressed, violent, argumentative, or just simply silly. The directors, however, decided to have Guèze play him as an uninteresting, low-energy tavern bore, who would occasionally chase a girl around the bar. Worse, they decided to have him moping around shame-faced when he was sober, and his attempted seduction of the disguised Queen was lame. Of course, who is to say that Shakespeare was not such a character? The problem is that it is exactly this question that forced itself into the mind, and refocused the attention away from the drama. Moreover, Shakespeare is a pivotal character, and although the directors did a fine job in many other areas, such a major failing seriously undermined the production.
It is the directors who must bear the bulk of the responsibility for Guèze’s unattractive portrayal of Shakespeare, although he must take his share of the blame. However, his singing was on a surer footing. He has a pleasing tenor with a very attractive middle register, which he used to good effect in characterizing the bard, although not sufficiently so as to compensate for his acting. He also came up short in the duet with Torosyan’s Elizabeth, in which he could not match her energy, agility, or strength, but then many tenors would find such a task difficult.
Olivia, Latimer, Jeremy, Nelly, and the Chorus
Elizabeth’s companion Olivia was expertly played by soprano Valentina Mastrangelo, who captured both the passionate feelings she has for Latimer, and the loyalty and affection which she holds for the Queen. It is a role in which the singer must wait until the third Act before she can really show off her voice, when she is given a duet and the aria, “Le ciel exauce ma prière” to sing, which was beautifully rendered, displaying Mastrangelo’s secure technique, radiant timbre, and delicious phrasing.
Latimer was played by tenor Vassily Solodkyy. Although his acting lacked direction, not helped by having him costumed in a formal dinner suit, his singing was lyrical, emotionally nuanced, and attractive. His voice possesses an alluring timbre with a smooth passaggio which he used with intelligence to develop the portrait of his character.
Bass-baritone Rory Dunne cast as Jeremy and soprano Kathleen Norchi in the role of Nelly, both members of the Wexford Opera Factory, produced confident, well-acted, and strongly sung performances.
The Chorus of Wexford Festival Opera was under the guidance of Andrew Synnott. In what was a poor decision it was situated offstage in raised seats on either side of the auditorium. Unless you were fortunate enough to be sitting in a central position, you were exposed to a distorted sound with either the male or female voices dominating the sound of the other, and if you were sitting directly beneath one of the two groups it was, on occasions, a struggle to hear the onstage singers.
The musical side of the production under the direction of Guillaume Tourniaire proved to be far more satisfying. Although the Wexford Festival Opera was reduced in size to meet Covid regulations, he elicited a strong performance from the orchestra which captured Thomas’ beautiful melodies and the score’s rhythmic energy, whilst highlighting the charm and delicacy of the softer passages. The consideration he gave to the singers gave them every opportunity to show off their skills, and it was one of which they took full advantage.
Staging and Costumes
Although presented as a semi-staged production, the fact was not particularly noticeable. The stage was flanked by large canvases reminiscent of work by Paul Rothko. Tables and chairs were scattered about for the Act one tavern scene, while Act two, set in the Royal park, was dominated by a crescent moon which descended from above, with candle lights across the back of the stage. Act three, set inside the palace, was given over to a large throne, positioned centrally, facing the audience. The lighting designer D.M.Wood did a fine job in creating the right atmosphere. Costumes appeared to be a random collection from across the late-19th and 20th centuries, comprising as mix of formal and informal wear. They were not particularly imaginative, but neither did they offend.
In his program notes Le Moli talks about Elizabeth’s ability to transform herself “into a warrior, a fairy, a knight or an actor to save her kingdom, to change its fortunes…” In other words, he sees the Queen as an actress performing in a theatre. This is certainly a valid perspective, and to this end, he was keen to emphasize that we are watching a piece of theatre, so had the stagehands in full view to remind the audience “that the world is a stage.” It was actually a good idea, but not one that was fully developed, and must go down as a missed opportunity.
The score of “Le Songe d’un nuit d’été” is an engaging work, containing a number of pleasant, charming and easy melodies. As a drama it proved to be fairly amusing, no better nor worse than the average French comic opera of the period, although this presentation by Wexford Festival Opera failed to make the most of it. Undoubtedly, this was partly due to it being a semi-staged production, and partly because of the change in directors during its preparation, but the decisions made regarding the characterisation of Shakespeare certainly did not help matters. Musically, however, it was a definite success.