giovedì 16 agosto 2012

Quite Different in Music and Vision 25 giugno

Quite Different

Benjamin Britten's

'A Midsummer Night's Dream',


Next year, the centenary of Benjamin Britten's birth (22 November 1913 in Lowestock, Suffolk) is likely to be overshadowed by the celebrations for the bicentenaries of Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi. Thus, some Italian Theatres are playing it in advance: La Scala produced a new Peter Grimes [Engrossing and Moving, M&V, 28 May 2012], the Teatro dell'Opera unveiled a new staging of A Midsummer Night's Dream on 19 June 2012 (just on the eve of the Summer solstice) and the Spoleto Festival will inaugurate its 55th edition on 29 June 2012 with a brand new The Turn of the Screw which I will review here. Three new productions in just a few weeks is quite an achievement because, with the exception of the very popular War Requiem, Britten is still rarely performed in Italy.

The Rome staging of A Midsummer Night's Dream has a long history. In 1999, the Teatro dell'Opera planned to loan the 1991 Aix-en-Provence Festival International d'Art Lyrique production. That rich and costly staging had been co-produced with the Opéra Nationale de Lyon. During the last eighteen years, it has traveled to many countries; in Italy, in the 1990s, it had a few performances at the Ravenna Festival and Ferrara Musica. In both towns the opera house is comparatively small and the stage not much larger than that at Aix-en-Provence. Carsen has reviewed and updated the staging many a time. It can be seen on DVD. Further stagings were organized all over Europe and in the USA. Eventually, the Aix-en-Provence production proved too costly (and too small) for the Teatro dell'Opera stage. But as the singers had been contracted, a very simple but quite effective production was organized in the small Teatro Nazionale. (Stage directions, sets and costumes were by Denis Krief.) Eventually, the Aix-en-Provence production was seen in Italy at La Scala in 1999. This review is based on the 19 June 2012 performance of the brand new Teatro dell'Opera production.

Claudia Boyle as Tytania and Peter Rose as Bottom in the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma production of Britten's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. Photo © 2012 Silvia Lelli. Click on the image for higher resolution

A Midsummer Night's Dream is a departure from Britten's chamber operas yet still far from his two forays into 'grand opera' (Gloriana, in addition to Billy Budd). Britten's writing is eclectic; it is rooted in the British tradition since Purcell but it also incorporates Berg's technique of adopting a theme on which to build each individual musical scene. Also, Britten does not turn his back on a tonal approach. Another aspect, especially relevant here, is his skillful capacity to obtain color from a small orchestral ensemble and the counterpoint of a large number of vocal soloists. Finally, Britten explores the magic of the night and assigns to the fairies the most 'unearthy' vocal register: a coloratura soprano (Tytania) and a counter-tenor (Oberon). The opera itself had been conceived for a specific event: the reconstruction, in 1960, of the Jubilee Hall in Aldeburgh, where Britten and his lifetime partner, the tenor Peter Pears, were living.

Claudia Boyle as Tytania and Peter Rose as Bottom in the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma production of Britten's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. Photo © 2012 Silvia Lelli. Click on the image for higher resolution

Even though the reconstruction implied an increase in space, the Hall could accommodate no more than three-hundred-and-sixteen people. It had a simple wooden stage (with no modern machinery or equipment), the pit was designed for a small orchestra (nearly a chamber music ensemble), although the opera required eighteen soloists and a children's chorus. At that time, Britten was working on a project to reduce the cost of opera productions and to make them transportable from town to town; he thought that this was the only feasible strategy to make opera survive in the post-World War II era. As a part of this strategy, in 1945, he gave a new start to the Glyndebourne Festival in Sussex, and in 1947 he created the English Opera Group -- a touring company with limited means to bring opera even to small towns in the UK, Switzerland and the Netherlands. Some of his operas (The Rape of Lucretia, Curlew River and the church musical pieces) were composed for this specific project. Even in his attempt at grand opera, Billy Budd, he also composed a version with only two pianos and a slightly reduced number of soloists.

From left to right: Ellie Dehn as Helena, Tamara Gura as Hermia and Michael Batten as Puck in the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma production of Britten's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. Photo © 2012 Silvia Lelli. Click on the image for higher resolution

The new Rome production of A Midsummer Night's Dream is signed by the Scottish director Paul Curran, and the stage sets and the costumes are by Kevin Knight. In the pit is the well-known American conductor James Conlon. The concept is quite different from Carlsen's approach. The Canadian director -- quite young when he produced A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1991 -- emphasized a full gamut of erotic expressions with the stage sets dominated by large beds -- one oversized in the first and second act and four in the third act. Curran sets the opera in a natural history museum today: in the museum, a new acquisition is unveiled -- the ruins of a Maya Temple -- and from the Temple a world of fairies and forest birds, animals and elves emerge and mingle with couples from our modern time (quite a variety: youngsters, a royal couple and rustics). Thus, with a low budget for sets, props and costumes, the huge Teatro dell'Opera stage is fully utilized. Of course, there is a lot of eroticism (and many variations), but the accent is on the interplay between the fairy world and that of humans, as well as on the sweet remembrance and regret for the now by-gone youth (of the author, of the human royal couple, and of Oberon and Tytania).

From left to right: Peter Rose as Bottom, Saverio Fiore as Snug and George Humphreys as Tom Snout, with Michael Batten as Puck, kneeling, in the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma production of Britten's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. Photo © 2012 Silvia Lelli. Click on the image for higher resolution

From the musical standpoint, James Conlon and the orchestra were at the top. In the large Teatro dell'Opera auditorium, we listened to chamber music delights; the percussion and wind instruments had a sonority seldom heard at the Rome Opera. The cast was young: Oberon and Tytania were Lawrence Zazzo and Claudia Boyle; Lysander and Hermia were Shawn Mathey and Tamara Gura; Helena was Ellie Dehn; Demetrius: Phillip Addis; Theseus: Peter Savidge and Hippolyta: Natascha Petrinski. Puck was Michael Batten. This was a very good team, both in the arias and the ensembles.

Unfortunately, due to warm weather, many orchestra rows were empty on the inaugural nights, but after three and a half hours of performance, there was no lack of applause.

Copyright © 25 June 2012 Giuseppe Pennisi,

Rome, Italy







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