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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Opera Review: Goodfellows

The Met reawakens A Midsummer Night's Dream.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Bottom at bay: Tytania (Kathleen Kim) charms a translated Nick Bottom
(Matthew Rose, with ass's head) in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2013 The Metropolitan Opera.
The spirit of William Shakespeare was definitely evident in the Metropolitan Opera's current revival of its  Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, seen Tuesday night at Lincoln Center. This is the first presentation of the company's 1996 production (by Tim Albery and designer Antony MacDonald) in ten years. The occasion? The composer's 100th birthday, which falls on Nov. 22 of this year.

Britten's setting of the play (he co-wrote the libretto with his partner Peter Pears) does more than manage the three braided plots of this supernatural comedy--he does so by couching each of the dramatic groups (Faeries, Athenians, Rude Mechanicals) in their own musical and dramatic language, bringing all these threads together in the rich tapestry of the final act. Conductor James Conlon (music director of the Los Angeles Opera) made a welcome return to the Met pit, showing his skill with 20th century music and the tone-row architecture which Britten used to build his opera.

The work calls for a large cast and has a number of challenging, unconventionally written roles. Chief among them are Oberon and Tytania, the feuding rulers of the faerie kingdom. Oberon is a countertenor (here, Iestyn Davies) and Britten uses the voice's unearthly qualities to emphasize his callow manipulation of events and basic lack of humanity. Mr. Davies, , met the demanding writing with a bright, fluid sound that matched his natty lime-green suit.

He was well-matched by the high-flying coloratura of soprano Kathleen Kim, who seems to specialize in these death-defying roles. She used her athletic ability above the stave to underline Tytania's alien nature, displaying and indulging in the flights of fioratura singing that are the composer's parody of Baroque emotional display. In another unconventional bit of casting, Puck is a spoken part. He was played by Riley Costello as a young blade who might have escaped from J. K. Rowling's novels.

The emphasis of Britten's drama is squarely on the clash of Faeries and Mechanicals--specifically Tytania's one-night stand with the "translated" weaver Nick Bottom. Played here by Matthew Rose, Bottom is the emotional core of this opera--the only character that moves easily through the different societal layers of the show. Whether butchering his lines in the rehearsals for the play-within-a-play or prancing about the stage with his ass's head (a gift from the trickster Puck) Mr. Rose showed expert knowledge of this complex part, translating that into a rich, funny and very human performance.

He was surrounded by an able group of Mechanicals, whose staging of that "lamentable comedy" in the opera's final act proved the highlight of the entire opera. Britten spares nothing in his setting of this little theater piece, parodying multiple operatic styles and skewering other composers with jokes and cross-references. The strong group of soloists included tenors Barry Banks (Flute) and Scott Sully (Snout), and the lanky baritone Evan Hughes as Starveling. As Peter Quince, Patrick Carfizzi struggled to keep his charges in line.

The libretto omits most of Act I, thrusting the listener squarely into the dark forest (depicted here as a series of geometric, nested boxes with paper cut-outs for the moon and stars.) That said, Britten includes the two pairs of lovers mid-elopement, treating them as a bit of an afterthought. (In some ways, this is similar to the treatment of the same four characters in the Met's Shakespeare pastiche, The Enchanted Island.) Lysander (Joseph Kaiser) and Demetrius (Michael Todd Simpson) are somewhat interchangeable--just like Shakespeare's characters. Elizabeth DeShong and Erin Wall fought and screamed as Hermia and Helena (respectively.) Their best moment: a beautiful four-part canon in the third act as the lovers are properly paired off and reconciled.

As in Shakespeare, the last word goes to the faeries, with some beautiful singing from the four child singers playing the principals (including the young Britten specialist Benjamin P. Wenzelberg as Mustardseed). Mr. Davies and Ms. Kim swept through Theseus' newly settled house in a pair of stunning, winged gowns (Oberon's was more stunning than Tytania's.) The final word went to Puck, as Mr. Costello delivered the last monologue, ending by flying high above the stage.

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