It may have taken 28 years to see Robert Carsen’s production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the U. S., but it was worth waiting for. Kudos to Opera Philadelphia for making it happen—and for delivering a sensational version, both musically and theatrically.
I’ve had mixed feelings in the past about Carsen’s work, but this is as good a case for his vision as any I’ve seen. A central scenographic idea (Michael Levine did the sets and costumes; Carsen himself designed the lighting with Peter Van Praet) evokes beds, wittily configured in an array of sizes and arrangements, bringing us directly into two of the plays central themes: sexual attraction and, of course, dreaming.
The entire show evokes a gorgeous, surrealistic fantasia, set in no obvious or specific time or place.
Carsen doesn’t shirk the comedy—in fact, his delectably droll setting of the Mechanicals’ “Pyramus and Thisbe” play is the best I’ve ever seen in my Midsummer-going life, which includes uncountable productions of the play. But he’s most at home with the elliptical, almost uncharacterizable tone: humorous, for sure, but also haunting and poignant.
That’s fine by me—in fact, that’s the Midsummer I always want. More to the point, it’s also the take on the piece that Britten (along with co-librettist, life partner, and original cast member Peter Pears) offers us.
There are so many glorious moments in this score, surely one of Britten’s greatest. For me, none is more striking than the introduction that evokes the woods: initially barely audible, but increasing in volume with a series of odd, ever-shifting chords with key phrases sliding downwards.
It’s all there in those first fascinating but destabilizing moments—the tart admixture of droll wit, electricity, and even a touch of something sinister.
It’s a cerebral score to be sure, but also full of enchantment (the ethereal Fairy chorus of boys) and sublime if slightly off-kilter beauty (“Up and Down, Up and Down”). All of it is done full justice at Opera Philadelphia, beginning with masterful conducting by Corrado Rovaris and fine playing from the orchestra.
Among the cast, here—as so often in Midsummer productions, including the play—Bottom (Matthew Rose) runs off with the show. Rose’s lush and substantial bass easily fills the theater, he nails the comedy, and his diction would be clear enough for dictation.
Countertenor Tim Mead and soprano Anna Christy bring fine voices and lots of personality to Oberon and Tytania. Georgia Jarman, Johnathan McCullough, Siena Licht Miller and Brenton Ryan sing beautifully as the four lovers, and the Mechanicals are all terrific.
Kudos also to the Philadelphia Boys Choir, who have worked hard in the last two months (they were also featured in the Philadelphia Orchestra’s concert of Leonard Bernstein’s Kaddish).
Puck is taken here by virtuoso acrobat-actor Mitos Yerolemou, a veteran of the Carsen production, adding a bit more shtick than I would like. I should add that Carsen’s direction asks a lot of the entire cast, both in terms of physical business, and nuanced characterizations. Everyone delivers handsomely.
If I had one wish, it would be to see this staging in a smaller theater. Midsummer is not a chamber work in terms of size and forces, but it has a chamber-ish texture, and the lovely intricacies in Britten’s music and this highly detailed production would be better served if the venue were more intimate. (Apart from Rose, that would also suit this appealingly lyrical but not stentorian cast).
On the other hand, having it at the beautiful Academy of Music means more people can see this sublime Midsummer, and that’s certainly a win.
Photos by Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia