Culture

Theatre

Ill met by moonlight

By Miriam Cosic
Neil Armfield’s direction of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at the Adelaide Festival didn’t quite rise to the occasion

A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Adelaide Festival. Photo © Tony Lewis / Adelaide Festival

Director Neil Armfield has a special affinity for Benjamin Britten’s operas. His productions of Billy Budd and Peter Grimes, both here and overseas, were tours de force – as were all his stagings of Janacek operas, by the way. He manages to seamlessly blend gravitas, the moral dimension, dramatic acting and urgent staging into the modernist musical idiom.

Armfield’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Britten, the opening night of this year’s Adelaide Festival, was not quite so successful. Britten’s take on Shakespeare’s comedy doesn’t entirely suit the composer’s musical style, more lyrical though it is than his contemporaries’ often dissonant serialism, and despite it being enlivened in this work by the fairies’ chanting, Tytania’s coloratura, and the comedy of the theatre troupe and the confused lovers. And though Armfield has already taken this production to Toronto, Chicago and Houston before premiering it in Adelaide, it doesn’t seem to be honed by experience. Despite some excellent music on opening night, the production was a little flat – though some diehard Britten fans brushed away my qualms after the show.

Shakespeare wrote his play around 1595–96, around the time he was working on Romeo and Juliet, and some parallel sub-themes can be found. He began and ended A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the mythical Athenian court of Theseus and the Amazonian queen, Hippolyta. The opening scenes establish the coming marriages of the two young couples and the structure of the play-within-a-play, as the “mechanicals” – an amateur troupe formed by a group of tradesmen – rehearse a play to be performed at the wedding celebrations, before the setting shifts to the fairies’ realm. In the end, they all return to Athens for resolution of the romantic and magical shenanigans in between.

As the Shakespeare scholar Reginald Foakes said of the play in the New Cambridge Shakespeare: “The most notable feature of the play is the dramatist’s inventiveness, brilliantly fusing scattered elements from legends, folklore and earlier books and plays into a whole that remains as fresh and original now as when it was composed.” In the Dream, we field references to Ovid, Apuleius, Greek mythology and Elizabethan folk tales. 

Britten’s were the first British operas to ascend to the same level of celebrity as Henry Purcell’s, three centuries before, and all have remained in the common repertoire. Britten’s very masculine dramas are powerful – musically, morally and narratively – and his A Midsummer Night’s Dream is and isn’t similar. Unlike previous opera composers who took great liberties with the Dream, the results of which did not survive, Britten and his partner in life and music, the singer Peter Pears, worked hard on retaining the playwright’s words for the libretto. They cut Shakespeare’s lines by half, removing the framing of Theseus’s civilised court and setting all but the very last scene in the fairies’ magical wood. And their work paid off.

Britten devised a different sound world for each of the character groups: the mismatched lovers who flee Athens, the workers who go to the forest to rehearse their play in peace, and the fairies in their realm. The royal court makes its first appearance in the very last moments of the opera, when everyone has woken up from Oberon’s spells, the right couples regroup for marriage and the mechanicals’ play-within-a-play is staged. That scene has always seemed to this viewer a non sequitur, a concession to Shakespeare in order to wrap up the action. And, unlike those more dramatic operas that seem designed for Britten’s musical style, the Dream takes some staging to bring to life – let alone to bring out the comedy – and requires a high level of exuberance, of mystery and of lyricism when lyricism is scored. Baz Luhrmann’s 1993 fandango, a visual feast reset in the British Raj, provided the spectacle to carry the opera to its conclusion. 

In Adelaide, the music was good. Under the baton of Paul Kildea, the music from the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra – with the Young Adelaide Voices singing the fairy pack – was slower than usual, perhaps to heighten the sense of a dream world. Some of the smallest fairies gave us beguiling performances. The principals were led by the young American countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, who has a lovely melodic voice for his type, singing Oberon, and the glistering soprano and fine dramatic actor Rachelle Durkin, as Tytania. Unfortunately, Durkin’s stage presence and acting prowess were rather undone by the pallid but complicated costume she had to deal with. Her voice was as powerful as ever but her coloratura, crucial in this otherwise flat-planed score, didn’t quite rise to the occasion. And Nussbaum Cohen’s almost inanimate projection – was that his regular demeanour or Armfield’s direction? – hardly added exuberance to the monochrome stage.

The mechanicals, led by the stalwart Warwick Fyfe with a hilarious donkey bray as Bottom, were solid. The dog accompanying them was a cute touch: the director’s black labrador was even named in the cast list as Lock Armfield. The women among the lovers – Sally-Anne Russell as Hermia and Leanne Kenneally as Helena – made those scenes. Their fights over their men and Hermia’s maddened outbursts, as well as the warmth of her voice, were among the surest comedy in the production. Mark Coles Smith was a lively Puck, cavorting about the stage with ebullience though perhaps a little less evidently germane to the action than usual. (Anyone old enough to have seen Lindsay Kemp as Puck in his own A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been spoiled for life.)

The arrival of the famed baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Theseus in the final scene seemed like overkill, given his brief time on stage, though Fiona Campbell as Hyppolita alongside him raised some overdue laughs with her impatience with the bumbling mechanicals.  

The sets and costumes, a product of the justly celebrated collaboration between Armfield and designer Dale Ferguson, was the biggest let-down. Was the production on a budget? It wouldn’t surprise me in these coronavirus-straightened times. But didn’t the sets come from those earlier (lauded) American versions of the productions? Take the plastic, pale greenish, hammocky thing, strung right across the stage, which rose and fell according to the moment, representing “the veil of sleep”. (Another critic likened it to a shower curtain.) That veil is described in the program as “a skin of sea-green transparency that hovers above the stage like the surface of the river Lethe, the Greek underworld’s legendary ‘sea of oblivion’”. The sentiment is glorious but unfulfilled by the reality of the prop. The static deep-green trees of the backdrop were mood-inducing though equally simple. The trees and the hammocky thing remained on the set throughout the opera until its removal to the royal court at the end.

The costumes that worked best were the humans’ ordinary modern clothing. Tytania’s costume, including ultra-long nails, a strangely flat feather headdress, and a pale and un-alluring dress, hampered more than defined her. The black metal skeleton of a basket that flew the black-suited Oberon through the air was too simple to be minimalist, if that’s possible.

The singing was nice, though not electrifying, but the production could have done with a touch of magic.

Most moving was Armfield’s dedication to the opera director Elijah Moshinsky in the catalogue. “The great Australian director Elijah Moshinsky died in a London hospital of COVID-19 on 14 January, 2021,” he wrote. “Elijah was one of the world’s finest opera directors, and his dazzling production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for The Australian Opera in 1978 remains one of my greatest experiences in an opera theatre. Elijah had already directed a revelatory Wozzeck for Adelaide Festival in 1976, and went on to direct The Makropulos Affair for Adelaide Festival 1982 …

“Elijah remained a mentor and supporter of my own career as a director. He was responsible for my being offered my first professional opera production in 1987 of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, and ten years later, Britten’s Billy Budd for Welsh National Opera. I would like respectfully to dedicate this production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Elijah Moshinsky.”

 

Miriam Cosic travelled to Adelaide as a guest of the Adelaide Festival.

Miriam Cosic

Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist and author.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Adelaide Festival. Photo © Tony Lewis / Adelaide Festival

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