On Tuesday night to Opera Australia’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.
This is one of my very favourite operas. It has probably supplanted the play itself in my affections, at least judging by my disappointment at the last performance I can definitely remember seeing. That was directed by Kim Carpenter in 1985 in the dying days of the Nimrod Theatre at the Seymour Centre with, from memory, Hugo Weaving as Oberon.
I first saw it in the production directed by Elijah Moshinsky for the Australian Opera in 1978. (Prior to that, apart from some visits by the English Opera Group, Britten productions in Sydney were sort of cornered by Roger Covell’s UNSW Opera – I caught the last of these that same year – The Turn of the Screw.) James Bowman, as Oberon, looking a bit like a red indian or, for that matter, Neil from the Young Ones, came down from the flies on a kind of swing. There was water and splashing around. It was a musical and to me at such a tender age theatrical revelation.
That production was revived. The young Toby Cole was one of the fairies one revival. That must have been in the early 80s.
The present production dates from 1993. Tobias Cole now returns as Oberon.
Famously, it is a Baz Luhrman production. It is visually inventive and full of “business.” It must especially be fun for the boys who are the fairies because they are on stage for so much of the time. It is set in India in 1923. The orchestra, dressed as a military band, is on a rotunda (surely not a pagoda as reported in the press?). Oberon tends to frequent the roof. There is water underneath and that is Titania’s bower. The above picture (better if you click on the link) is not mine but it gives something of the idea. The mechanicals are British soldiers and with the possible exception of Peter Quince, “other ranks.” Others have detected a reminiscence of “It ain’t half hot, Mum.”
I’m sorry to say I was a little underwhelmed by this revival. Perhaps I have seen the production too many times to be delighted by its inventiveness. The humour and busyness seemed even broader than I recalled. For example, I would have preferred a little more faith to be put in the musical values of the operatic parody in the last act: Thisbe’s lament can actually be musically moving, even though you know Britten is having you on.
It has occurred to me that, for once, it would have been better had I sat further away. After all, there was no need to snuggle up to the orchestra pit. Maybe at a distance the broadness of the comedy and the amount of business would have worked better. That’s just a thought though, because I’ve sat close to this production before and loved it
I wondered if on a musical front I am too imprinted by other approaches, including the first impression made all those years ago. What was particularly lacking for me was an adequate realisation of the magical moments. Cole’s diction as Oberon was stunning clear but ironically this made it all just a bit too matter of fact and detracted from the mystery – neither “I know a bank” nor the final lilting song of the fairies quite reached the mark. The test for me is how things feel at the end of the middle act: I was willing myself to reach the feeling of magic and nocturne which I think is its goal but the music just didn’t quite get me there.
If a finger can be put on it, mine is pointing to Alexander Briger, who conducted. Were things just a bit too brisk? I’m not claiming any justification in group-think, but I do note that I am not the only one to had reservations of this nature (1) (2).