A Midsummer’s Night in Mid-winter VancouverReview
With so many audiences being intimately familiar with the music that Mendelssohn wrote for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Vancouver Opera opted for a departure from the familiar into the lesser known opera by Benjamin Britten. A more modernist take on the Elizabethan story, Britten departs somewhat from the original play, cutting the opening scenes in the court of Athens and begins as the four Athenian lovers are heading out into the forest.
The setting for the woods is a concrete, brutalist set piece of multiple levels that rotates to give the actors the chance to chase, run, evade, hide, and eventually catch each other. We open with Lysander, played by tenor Spencer Britten and Hermia, played by mezzo-soprano Hillary Tufford escaping into the woods to be married, free from the constraints of Athenian society. Britten and Tufford were very well-matched, with warm, sumptuous duets.
Close on their heels are Demetrius played by Clarence Frazer, and Helena, played by Jonelle Sills. Demetrius in pursuit of Hermia, and Helena in pursuit of Demetrius running through the woods. Frazer’s baritone was full and powerful, and wonderfully matched with Sills’ agile soprano. Sills took a difficult, somewhat atonal score and made it sound musical and profound, a bright, fluid performance that was in turns profound and comical.
The players: Bottom (Peter McGillivray), Flute (Asitha Teneknoon), Quince (Luka Kawabata), Snug (Peter Monaghan), Snout (Ian Cleary), and Starveling (Jason Cook), begin preparing their play for the court of Theseus. In this production, they’re portrayed as modern tradesman, who are the most amateur actors that Athens could assemble. The entire rehearsal farce was fall-down hilarious throughout, with everything from an emotional support stuffie, to stabbing oneself with a shoe, had the audience in stitches. Their performance of the “play” in the final act was uproariously funny, between the signs announcing each character (including “Lion: (not real)“), to the ridiculously over-the-top acting, it was almost hard to hear the music because the laughter was so loud throughout. An absolute show-stealer, and it was obvious the performers were having as much fun with the scene as the audience was.
While all this is taking place, the court of the faeries under Oberon (Daniel Moody) and Titania (Magali Simard-Galdès) are working their own intrigues and magic. The sprite Puck, played by actor Kunji Ikeda was present throughout all the mischief. Hanging out with the audience, breaking the 4th wall, and messing with the proceedings generally, Ikeda’s dance-like movement and physicality was mesmerizing and incredibly funny. For a non-singer amongst operatic voices, Ikeda’s performance came through at least as well as the singing, and their dialogue was very clear for such a large house.
As is often the case in Britten’s operas, instead of a standard chorus, we have a children’s chorus. With a mostly through-composed and often atonal score, this chorus handled the difficult music wonderfully. Dressed as fairies with LED-lit wings, or carrying glowing orbs, they were flawless in their performance of a very challenging score. The 4 attendant fairies: Peaseblossom (Sara Hajduk), Cobweb (Claire Jun), Moth (Claire O’Donnell), and Mustardseed (Sophia Quiring) were played by middle school and high school students (!). While their voices were lighter than your standard operatic performance, they were no less lovely, attending Titania and Bottom and taking the challenging music well in hand.
Titania, played by soprano Magali Simard-Galdès comes into her own in Act II. Singing of her doting affection on her new lover, Simard-Galdès was fluid with great control, floating high notes effortlessly in her dotage of Bottom. The only detraction from the action was a sex scene which seemed tacked on for shock value, rather than being earned by the story.
Under the direction of up-and-coming director Aria Umezawa, the setting was a mix of the modern, the antique, and the fantastical. With costumes, sets, lighting, that each blended different elements seamlessly into a cohesive whole.
Under the baton of Jacques Lacombe, the Vancouver Opera Orchestra brought sensitivity and light to a complex, neo-classical/modernist score.