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Monday, May 2, 2011

Opera Review: When Three Worlds Collide

A Midsummer Night's Dream at Boston Lyric Opera.
"I will roar you as gently as any sucking dove."
Andrew Shore (Bottom) and Andrew Garland (Starveling) in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Photo by Erik Jacobs © 2011 Boston Lyric Opera
On paper, Benjamin Britten's adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream should be his most successful opera. This is a witty adaptation of the play's original text, using disparate musical styles to depict the interaction of the faerie kingdom, the quartet of young lovers, and the Rude Mechanicals, the town tradesmen determined to make it in show-biz at any cost.

Britten's opera has never secured its feet in the repertory. Perhaps that is because the score goes completely against the listener's expectations. Britten deliberately juxtaposes a wide variety of styles to create the three separate worlds of the play. Music hall trombones clash with Elizabethan flourishes. Chivvying strings and tuned percussion evoke the dark forests outside of Athens. And the vocal writing is challenging for the large cast, with a mixture of singing, sprechstimme and spoken word. On Sunday afternoon, the Boston Lyric Opera met these challenges admirably with its new production at the Shubert Theater.

The heart of this performance was baritone Andrew Shore's performance as Bottom the Weaver, accompanied by strong ensemble of Rude Mechanicals. Whether rehearsing the "lamentable comedy" of Pyramus and Thisbe or swooning in the arms of the faerie queen Tytania, Mr. Shore pushed his baritone to the absolute limit, making the simple weaver into the most profound character in the opera.

Britten has the quartet of lovers sing almost all of their scenes in ensemble, and what's important is how the singers interact as they battle each other under the influence of Oberon's love-potion. City Opera veteran Chad A. Johnson and Matthew Worth sang the tenor and baritone parts of Lysander and Demetrius, battling over Hermia (Heather Johnson) and Helena (Susanna Philips). These four singers engaged in a good deal of physical activity in the third act, as they finally settled into two harmonious couples.

John Gaston sang the countertenor role of Oberon with flawless high notes and a commanding presence. He was equalled in vocal virtuosity by his Tytania, the coloratura soprano Nadine Sierra. Ms. Sierra had the finest voice in the cast, soaring through this difficult part which is like Mozart's Queen of the Night--but longer. Karim Sulayman shone in the (mostly spoken) role of Puck, orchestrating events for good or ill and appearing as the most appreciative audience member at the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe.

Members of the PALS Children's Chorus played the Queen's court, led by performances from the child singers Jerilyn Leader McClean, (Peaseblossom) Julia Shneyderman, (Moth) Adam Lino Marcelo (Mustardseed) and Emy Metzger (Cobweb.) They were featured in the "Hail Mortal" scene, where Tytania beds the transformed Bottom. Ass's head and all, this was when Britten's magic was strongest.

The final play-within-a-play was performed to the hilt. Matthew DiBatista was a mincing, flouncing and very funny Frances Flute. Snout (Tom Ferrara) and Starveling (Andrew Garland) aced Britten's difficult vocal writing, including the Schoenberg parody every time the word "moon-shine" appears in the text and the falsetto part for the Wall. Best of all, the play was not performed with any sort of "tragic" spin--but for pure laughs and enjoyment.

John Conklin's amiable production made clever use of color and shape to differentiate the three worlds of the opera. BLO music director David Angus did an exceptional job in the pit, conducting Britten's original, pared-down orchestration that calls for only a minimal string section. This shifted the balance of the orchestra, placing greater emphasis on the woodwinds and complex percussion parts in the intricate score.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.