I had heard such wildly contradicting opinions on Benjamin Britten’s operas that naturally, I was intrigued. Yet cautious. Last night, I found myself back at the Lesher Arts Center in Walnut Creek to watch Festival Opera’s Midsummer Night’s Dream by Benjamin Britten. This was my second time there, having watched Festival Opera’s Il Trovatore a few months back.
It’s a big testament to opera (and a big improvement to the operas I used to watch in high school at the LA Opera) how all the elements of performance all point to a purpose. Like multiple arguments that support a thesis, everything from the singing styles of each performer to the sets to the lighting to the score pointed to the dreamlike atmosphere of this opera, which made for a complete experience. The score was deliciously complex and wistful in its gentle yet dizzying dissonance. It wasn’t the dissonance that I’m usually sensitive to, but like eerie sounds coming from an enchanted woods or the sounds that fairies make, there was a nonintrusive quality to the dissonance that I found unexpectedly pleasing. If there are two camps that either love Britten operas or don’t, I am definitely in the positive camp and am interested in hearing more. If the score didn’t have the catchy melodies of Verdi’s Il Trovatore, it made up for it in its complexity of contrasts (a held note being sung on stage, accompanied by an ascending staccato in the symphonic bass line) that enveloped the audience in an almost narcotic atmosphere that was transporting.
Some elements were more successful than the others. In theory, it was a fitting addition to incorporate choreography into this opera, especially as the opera opens, the sleepy rise of the dancers’ limbs (as wood sprites or Puck’s sidekicks perhaps?) immediately set the tone for the rest of the performance. However it becomes painfully obvious that the dancers mostly serve no other purpose than fillers for the glorious music that had enough legs to stand on its own.
Like Il Trovatore, the cast for Midsummer excelled expectations. It was uncanny how the singing styles contributed to character and plot development, from the clean light style of Helena (sung by Stacey Cornell) was a testament to Helena’s flighty, desperate character, to the earthier full singing voice of Jessica Mariko Deardorff as Hermia which described her more realistic yet fully emotional nature. The casting in this opera was spot on. Countertenor William Sutherland as Oberon, costumed unfortunately as Rod Stewart in drag, had a voice dripping with sensuality with a touch of smokiness in his falsetto, albeit lacking a consistently strong projection. Ani Maldijian as Tytania had a coloratura voice and a sex appeal that sparkled. The men in the quartet of lovers with Jorge Garza as Lysander and Nikolas Nackley as Demetrius were excellent as the ardent lovers who seemed to get more passionate when they were loving the ones they weren’t supposed to after the influence of Puck’s doings, but lacked that special spark to truly believe that they were in love. The opera really came to life with the appearance of the rustics – the working class men who perform the play within this opera. Each and every single one of them were scene stealers in their own rite, all with impeccable comic timing. Kirk Eichelberger, who made an impressive showing in Il Trovatore, took over the stage with his commanding stage presence, big voice, and acting skills as Bottom. The rest of the rustics achieved the delicate balance between exaggeration and earnestness, each with their own flair – John Minagro as Quince with a dry Eeyore-like humor, Jonathan Smucker as Flute with a touch of gentility, Trey Costerisan as Snout as the very funny “Wall”. As an ensemble they were a golden combination; all of them were equally deluded yet earnestly so, and it was performed with that perfectly balanced comedic touch. Last but not least, Kurt Wolfgang Krikorian as Puck impressed not only his voice but also the dance skills to make Puck come to life.
William Sauerland as Oberon, Kurt Krikorian as Puck. Photo by Robert Shomler
Kirk Eichelberger (Bottom), Joshua Elder (Starveling), John Minagro (Quince), Jonathan Smucker (Flute), Trey Costerisan (Snout), John Bischoff (Snug). Photo by Robert Shomler
An additional special shoutout to the lighting, by Patrick Hajduk and sets by Frederic O. Boulay. Lighting and the setting are extremely underrated in performance, but I’ve been appreciating it more and more, especially following who wins the Tony’s for best lighting and set design, and why. I’ve seen lighting (and sets) ruin a show, and I’ve seen both be a vital part of a show, as it was for this opera. The scenery seemed to be bathed in a dreamy aura, thanks to the the sets and the lighting, that brought the audience to its magical place immediately.
If you’re curious about Benjamin Britten’s operas, or are a fan of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I highly recommend this opera. It’s also a great opera to bring a newcomer – admittedly, there are a few slow spots (especially with the lovers – despite their excellent singing, a lack of chemistry really bogs down these moments) but the comedic acting and the thoughtful detailed performance and wonderfully precise singing is well worth it.
Festival Opera. A Midsummer Night’s Dream ends on August 17.
Other takes: (being updated fast and furiously as they are posted)