A London Summer with Huntley Dent / Opera / The Berkshire Review in London

Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the English National Opera

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Willard White as Bottom and Anna Christy as Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream by Benjamin Britten, English National Opera. Photo Alastair Muir
Willard White as Bottom and Anna Christy as Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream by Benjamin Britten, English National Opera. Photo Alastair Muir

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Opera by Benjamin Britten
English National Opera

Conductor – Leo Hussain
Director – Christopher Alden

Oberon – Iestyn Davies
Bottom – Willard White
Tytania – Anna Christy (19th May – 25th June) and Gillian Keith (30th June)
Lysander – Allan Clayton
Demetrius – Benedict Nelson
Theseus – Paul Whelan
Helena – Kate Valentine
Hermia – Tamara Gura
Flute – Michael Colvin
Snug – Graeme Danby
Snout – Peter van Hulle
Starveling – Simon Butteriss

Feral fairies. Anyone afraid of a sugar overdose had nothing to worry about at the English National Opera’s fiercely odd production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This is a company that often traffics between radical and gimmicky, every once in a while being capable of acts of metamorphosis. In this case the director, Christopher Alden, seems to have taken his cue from the first sound we hear: slithery glissandos in the lower strings that introduce the fairy world not with whimsy and a twinkle but a wave of sea-sick nausea. In a daring move, the entire production metastasizes from the queasiness of that sound. The initial effect was to travesty Shakespeare’s magical comedy — audience members who stalked up the aisle before the first act ended clearly didn’t appreciate such high-handedness — but the music has never sounded so disturbing, or so convincing.

It isn’t enough to say that we found ourselves in the gray penitential courtyard of a boys’ boarding school instead of an enchanted woods, where characters young and old wore the same prescribed uniform of blazer and tie, or that everyone wandered in aimless slow motion like drug-stupefied sleepwalkers. That image isn’t nearly evil enough. Nor is it fair to point to Bottom stripped to the waist and dripping with sweat (no ass’s head) as he entered an s-and-m liaison with Titania, as a dominatrix in plaid kilt and bra, although you get the general picture.

This was a forest of the hairy unconscious, dangerous to enter because it was populated only by imbecilic idiots (the rude mechanicals rehearsing their bawdy version of Pyramus and Thisbe) and besotted Id-iots, the gentle folk captivated by impulses they couldn’t control. The night train to Shepherd’s Bush got derailed at Hieronymus Bosch. Puck seemed to have a man-boy thing for Oberon (which caused no audience defections. We were inoculated several years ago by Alan Bennett’s smash pedophile comedy, The History Boys). School kids wore rock-star shades and puffed reefer when they were portraying the fairies in Titania’s retinue. Theseus stood around as a mute, forlorn spectator — since he wore a rep tie, I took it he was an old boy of the school — except when he was lashed to a trash can that began to emit hellish smoke. This occurred just before a spectacular coup de theatre when Puck torched the entire school in a three-alarm blaze.

Before saying more, I should praise the singers and musicians. Conductor Leo Hussain led a clear, beautifully incisive reading of the score. Between the excellent orchestral work and the mesmerizing anomie on stage, the singers were forced to take a back seat. But several stood out anyway, especially Iestyn Davies in the countertenor role of Oberon, his voice sweet and strong, his diction perfect. The London critics liked Anna Christy’s Titania more than I did. She handled the coloratura of the role well but in a small voice and with indistinct words. Sir Willard White, a leading Wotan nowadays, was suitably scenery-chewing as Bottom, and he threw himself into the writhing indignities of his sadomasochistic scene with Titania. The unsettling visual effect, since White wore a clipped gray beard, was of a barrel-chested granddad frisking with a girlie. The four lovers were evenly cast, good singers and willing actors even if none was charismatic. It’s hard to effect a star turn dressed in preppie uniforms. The boys’ chorus sang lustily and in tune but could not be understood.

Iestyn Davies as Oberon and Anna Christy as Tytania in A Midsummer Night's Dream by Benjamin Britten, ENO, Photo Alastair Muir.
Iestyn Davies as Oberon and Anna Christy as Tytania in A Midsummer Night's Dream by Benjamin Britten, ENO, Photo Alastair Muir.

Any stray sneers left over from Eurotrash productions of Wagner are not apt. The miracle of the ENO’s production is that it perfectly suited the queer, upsetting music that Britten actually composed, which for decades has been sugar-coated by the fairy tale plot. When I found myself unable to pinpoint the experience, my companion came up with the perfect analogy: Balthus. The eerie Polish-French painter juxtaposes everyday reality — an afternoon on the sidewalks of a small village, a girl in a Dirndl gazing out at alpine scenery — with salacious acts: a peeping Tom at the window, a pervert looking up the girl’s skirt. The effect is vertiginous because both aspects, the overt and the secretive, the normal and the pathological, walk side by side down the same sunny street. So, as Oberon makes a lyric speech to Puck about the tincture that will bind the mortals in his spell, Puck reaches for him in erotic yearning, and where his response is “I’ll put a girdle round about the earth in forty minutes,” this Puck flies nowhere. Instead, he takes a drag on a cigarette and slowly slides down the wall into a stupor. What could be more Balthusian? Much else, actually, if you decide that Britten’s psyche was simultaneously prim and pedophilic. I’ve mentioned Alan Bennett, whose more recent smash hit was The Habit of Art, which centers on a fictional reunion, after years of distance, between Britten and W. H. Auden. An obnoxiously out and proud Auden points his finger at the reticent, quailing Britten: “Come on, Ben, it’s always been about the boys.” And more in the same vein.

I found the play offensive in its gay-lib yucks, trampling on a great artist’s perilous psychological situation. Alden’s direction of the opera doesn’t go this far or insinuate this crudely. But we are at a boys’ boarding school, and proper lads by day morph into proper demons by night. Between them, Berg’s two Expressionist operas, Wozzeck and Lulu, divvy up the term psychopathia sexualis. Britten’s score veers in other, more quivery directions. The atmosphere is inescapably oppressive for the sexually nascent pre-teens, and by outfitting the adults in the same school gear, the point is made that no one has grown up. Puck is, at some level, the boy that Theseus once was. Both are in agony, and the final scene shows the man reaching out to touch and comfort the weeping boy — only he can’t. His fist clenches; he draws back; the moment is gone forever. In the end, a greater genius, Shakespeare, has been sacrificed to allow a lesser genius, Britten, his haunted glory. The other world is populated not by fairies but by our lost selves.

4 thoughts on “Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the English National Opera

  1. What would we do without sentences like “The night train to Shepherd’s Bush got derailed at Hieronymus Bosch!?” But I’d have walked out..

    Interesting, how German and British theatrical tendencies after the war went in fairly twisted directions, but the French and Italians seemingly didn’t. That may be too sweeping, but I am struck, as a boarding school student since the age of eight, by the happy thought that nobody could have tweaked this production to make it happen at an American school. If you think about it, there is very little American Opera or even theater that revels in sadomasochistic evil. There is very little of it in American culture, period. Mamet? He’s a Republican. “Wozzeck”? We get “Merry Mount” or “Vanessa”. Boarding school? We get the “The Children’s Hour.” Child’s play!

    Weird hand-rubbing evil fits Britain and Germany like a glove. In America it is reserved for newly minted horror movies, where you expect it. But Britain and Germany emerged from the war so shattered, it seems to me, that their mind-set is more prone to pee on great works from the past, as though all dignity had been an illusion. It’s not the crudities and sexual twists that repel so much, I think, as the obvious desire to defile. No one wants to witness the psychological breakdown of a graffiti artist.
    Steven Kruger

  2. Very nice – makes me wish to have been at that one too. The Shakespeare and his
    world of boys as women is pretty wild and roaring-unconscious after all. There
    were people who walked out of the great Peter Brook production also.

  3. The Alden production was possible a fair fit for for the music BUT it totally clashed with the words (and being Britten you could hear them). It must have been a challenge for the cast to act in one opera and sing a totally different one – they did so at least as well as could be expected.

  4. For me there was far too much emphasis on the drab and the dreary. Surely it’s a work of contradictions and that includes joy and playfulness as well as darker moods.

    My main problem was following the plot, as from the upper circle I just couldn’t tell one character from another. I think the first act goes like this – a boy in school uniform loves a girl in school uniform but the boy in school uniform doesn’t want his daughter, the girl in school uniform to marry the boy in school uniform. Instead, he wants her to marry a boy in school uniform, but the boy in school uniform doesn’t love the girl in school uniform – instead he is in love with a girl in school uniform. Apparently a boy in school uniform and a girl in school uniform are the king and queen of something and that’s useful to know on the occasion when you can tell who they are. At least you know who Puck is when he opens his mouth as he has a speaking role.

    There was a wonderful magic moment near the end of Act 2 from the boys chorus but otherwise I would have done better to stay at home and listen to the cds again rather than travel some distance to sit in horrible seats and watch such a dull and monotonous production. Even though I have nothing but praise for the cast, chorus, orchestra and conductor.

    There have been plenty of articles, books and documentaries exploring the the semi-hidden world of Britten’s sexuality. Should we allow a fixation on one (admittedly very important) aspect of this to hijack the entire opera? Surely there is room for some Shakespeare as well, some light and shade instead of unremitting gloom?


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