After 57 years, the Vienna State Opera brought Benjamin Britten’s masterwork “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” back into its repertoire. The opera had its world premiere at the Aldeburgh Festival on June 11, 1960, with the Vienna State Opera showcasing the work for the first time in 1962.
This chronology implies that the opera house was quick to stage Britten’s masterwork shortly after its world premiere, but then had waited for over half a century to present it to its audience again.
Fortunately, that wait was worth it with the Vienna State Opera’s latest rendition a true inspiration. Tickets have been selling fast, and despite the fact that the celebrated opera venue offers its own livestream service for a minimal fee, it seemed like the hottest ticket of the early season.
The Mastery of Staging Shakespeare
Famous director Irina Brook was in charge of giving a new and fresh look into Britten’s dreamy masterpiece. Brook has recently left her manager position at the Théatre National de Nice and fully returned to the theater itself. Well-known for staging both Shakespeare’s plays in theater and opera houses, she married her two biggest passions to offer a youthful and playful new insight into the world of fairies, magical spells, unhappy lovers and madness of love. She chose to do it through multiple channels, strictly following Britten’s/Pears’ libretto and adding diversified details to boost the original motives of Shakespeare’s play.
As the curtain rose, we saw a fixed set consisting of big stairs to the right, ancient wood in the center and a rustic piano with a chair to the left, both overgrown with moss. Four smaller lamps were positioned on the upper side of a piano, and two bigger lamps were displayed to the right and to the left of it. The overall impression was that of an abandoned ruin abundant with wild trees and flowers. Under dim lights, two actors carried a snake with translucent green eyes, clearly depicting a dangerous environment of an ancient wild wood. That motive was repeated several times during different sequences. This initial feeling of danger and dread eventually made for an excellent interplay with joyful songs of the fairies and lovers, with danger lingering everywhere.
The fixed set provided a nice framework for various parts of the opera, successfully shifting the attention from one sequence to another, without losing focus or diving into too many unnecessary details. Brook’s main motive behind this staging seemed to be the search for magical elements in the frail world of human beings. Granted, she did not miss the opportunity to highlight her environmental activism with fairies holding “Nature first” and “Save the fairies” signs. However, that just added another contemporary dimension that did not hurt the original motives of both Shakespeare’s play and Britten’s opera.
The next layer of mixture of Brook’s magical worlds was revealed with the appearance of the four lovers – Lysander, Hermia, Demetrius and Helena. They were dressed in boarding school uniforms with backpacks, showing us the contemporary style that did not hurt the original idea, but quite the contrary. The two worlds nicely co-existed on stage, but both emphasizing the same themes and ideas.
We also saw this with The Mechanics (The Rustics) – a group of workmen that are rehearsing the play “Pyramus and Thisby.” They were also dressed in contemporary suits. In this context, a carpenter, a bellows-mender, a weaver, a joiner, a tinker and a tailor sought to dramatize a medieval romance. It was pretty obvious that for Brook the play “Pyramus and Thisby” was not just serving as entertainment for the ancient court, but had much deeper meaning. It tended to show that theatrical plays were equally honored by royals, noblemen and ordinary workmen.
As the first rehearsal by the Mechanics was in progress, the lighting abruptly changed to portray the dark wood under magical spells. The Bottom, one of the Mechanics, still wore his craftman’s suit got ass’ ears to comply with the libretto: Tytania was under the spell to fall in love with him at the first sight. The Queen of the Fairies in an ancient costume and a craftsman in a contemporary suit – two timelines were nicely overlapping and interacting on stage.
Finally the play moved to the court of Duke Theseus, and the set was slightly changed to portray the interior of the court, but the fixed nature of it was preserved. The way that Brook directed that part was equally impressive, as it succesfully expressed the idea behind the play: theater that was accessible for everyone.
Finally, the bergomask dance proposed by Peter Quince and accepted by the Duke Theseus contained all the elements of the folk dance in contemporary setting. Those shows were widely enjoyed by all social classes, craftsmen as well as royals in the English medieval time courts. It showed us that magic has no boundaries and no limits. It was a clever and deeply thoughtful staging.
The Magical World Opens
The First Act opened with a brief orchestral prelude, slow and mysterious, with strings sliding up and down between major chords., to express deep breathing during a dream. This beginning emphasized that conductor Simone Young was setting up for a serious performance, continuing with slowly animating and finally lively atmosphere as the Fairies appeared on the stage, singing their “Over hill, over dale, trough bush, through brier.” The lively passage ended with Puck entering (sliding down the stairs to the right of the auditorium) with a warning of King Oberon’s anger.
The character of Puck (or Robin Goodfellow), a loyal servant of Oberon, King of the Fairies, was magnificently played by Théo Touvet. Known as a musician, dancer, but also versatile acrobat and even circus artist, Touvet portrayed Puck with an exquisite dose of humor. His French accent added an additional entertaining layer to the speaking part of the libretto, his acrobatic dances amplifying the magic offered by both Shakespeare and Britten.
In that way Puck’s dancing connection with Britten’s music was gracefully emphasized. His performance, inside a rotating wheel that at the same time had precessional movements at the end of Second Act, was a masterful display to cherish and remember. It also seemed that Brook chose this performance to replace the part of the story at the end of the Second Act where Puck is anointing Lysander’s eyes with a magical flower, so that he could fall back in love with his beloved Hermia. Perhaps the rotational-precessional wheel was already magical enough to do the spell? It was an interesting choice.
The role of Oberon was sung by a countertenor, in an obvious attempt to musically portray a being that is more than a human, but less than a god. American countertenor Lawrence Zazzo is a signature interpreter of Oberon and showed why in this showcase. In an increasingly heated exchange with Tytania, Zazzo offered the first glimpse into his range. It was quite a rich timbre, with lines beautifully phrased. This memorable performance continued with the famous Oberon’s aria “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,” the signature moment of the opera, where Zazzo showed exquisite sensuality of his voice. His dramatic expressions were quite persuasive and confident, giving us an Oberon whose rage was real and palpable, but also hinted at his will to help tormented lovers in need.
This abundant warm sensuality of Oberon’s sound was developed further at the beginning of the Third Act, as he woke up Tytania from her sleep: “My Gentle Robin; see’st thou this sweet sight?” Zazzo was also robust in the role’s low range requirements, especially during Oberon’s closing lines “Trip away; make no stay; meet me all by break of day.”
Coloratura soprano Erin Morley sang the role of Tytania, with a spirited sound, first in “Set your heart at rest,” and then in “What angel wakes me from my flowery bed?” During the latter portion, Morley offered quite a confident account of a bewitched Tytania, her voice gracious and rich in expressions as she behaved like a woman in love with an ass. It was a nicely accentuated acting.
The Lovers Join In
Mezzo-soprano Rachel Frenkel appeared in the role of Hermia, while tenor Josh Lovell was tasked with interpreting Lysander. They provided the first sparks of passion in “Belike for want of rain” and “How now, my love,” respectively.
Both Frenkel and Lovell gave us initial glimpses into their gleaming top ranges in the beautiful duet “I swear to thee,” which was carried out with outstanding excitement and passion. Their dramatic expressions matched vocal performances in full, revealing a couple madly in love and ready to flee in order to avoid sharp Athenian law that was forcing Hermia to marry another man – Demetrius. During “Lysander, help me, what a dream was there,” Frenkel’s voice expressed lyrical grace while embracing and caressing lines of emotionally painful aria. She also had a clearly painful expression on her face and her gestures were revealing an inner torment. She also excelled while singing “Puppet? Why so? Ay, that way goes the game,” starting slow and precise before eventually giving a fierce physical portrayal of a hurting lover.
The role of Helena was sung by young Moldovan soprano Valentina Nafornita, while baritone Rafael Fingerlos took on the role of Demetrius. Fingerlos acted quite strongly as an angry Demetrius, forcefully pushing Helena away, while Nafornita added several layers of humor with her youthful and innocent appearance. Overall, Frenkel, Nafornita, Fingerlos and Lovell did a very good job both vocally and dramatically, engaging in various parts of libretto while expressing feelings of despair and love madness on stage.
The Craftsmen, or Theater for All
Six Mechanics appear for the first time after Oberon’s aria “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows.” Simple workmen entered the stage cautiously, and get ready to rehearse for a play “Pyramus and Thisby”. The most lamentable comedy, as one of the Mechanics called it, is set to be performed in the court of Duke Theseus.
Experienced singer Wolfgang Bankl sang the role of Peter Quince, the head of this merry group of craftsmen, his deep bass extremely well-suited for the role. That was already clearly audible with “Marry, our play is.”
The best developed character of all six Mechanics was definitely The Bottom, here sung by British bass Peter Rose. His handsome, warm bass sound was clearly felt in “My Chief humour is for a tyrant,” and he was set to play the role of Pyramus in the play. Rose offered some top-notch comic acting in the scene with Tytania, playing a perfectly delusional ass, and offered his beautiful bass in “When my cue comes.”
Tenor Benjamin Hulett took on the role of Flute, one of the workmen, who was cast to play the role of Thisby in the “Pyramus and Thisby.” He actually has a very handsome tenor voice, but here he needed to adapt his performance a bit.
Theseus and Hippolyta (roles sung by Peter Kellner and Szilvia Vörös) were practically reduced to pure spectators. Kellner was persuasive and commanding, while Vörös showcased the true beauty of her lovely mezzo-soprano voice while singing “ This day will quickly steep.”
Bass William Thomas (Snug) roared in the role of a Lion.
Puck’s famous words “If we shadows have offended, think but this, and all is mended, that you have but slumber’d here while these visions did appear” put a final stamp on Benjamin Britten’s masterpiece.
Conductor Simone Young led Vienna State Opera fantastic orchestra masterfully, giving a vivid and exciting account of Britten’s music, while successfully shifting between the dreamy and vivid environments. The strings were in particularly excellent form, as were the harps.
The Vienna State Opera had no easy task in bringing back Britten’s masterpiece after a long 57-year old hiatus. But ultimately, the company did so in admirable fashion, with excellent directing from Brook, and starry cast performing at its best. It was a night to remember in Vienna… A city of dreams.