I've now seen, to the best of my recollection, four musical adaptations of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The first was a really rather enjoyable musical my high school produced, called Dream on Royal Street, which sets the action in a New Orleans hotel during Mardi Gras. The second was Purcell's The Fairy-Queen, which perhaps only partially counts, seeing as its musical numbers have absolutely nothing to do with the Shakespeare. The third was Mendelssohn's, as staged by the Sydney Symphony in last year's delightful season opening gala. And the latest, of course, has been Britten's opera.
The Britten is wonderful, of course, and yet I hesitate to name it as my favourite of the four. Not because it doesn't deserve to be, but simply because it's a very closely run race. I loved every one of these, even the musical; in fact, it was Dream on Royal Street which introduced me to the concept of liking a show enough go (gasp!) more than once. I think it's just the inherent wonderfulness of the play, which is one of my favourite in the whole world — treated with affection, and at least a modicum of talent, it's probably a difficult one to wreck.
Baz Luhrmann's production came with so much feverish hype attached that I couldn't help doubting it just a little. Thus it was as much a relief as a thrill to arrive in the theatre and be greeted by such an enchanted playground of a set. Pit paved over with astroturf, orchestra (in red uniforms!) warming up in the grand pavilion, birds chirping, incense burning. There's even a lake! I've never in my life felt so much like climbing onto the stage and just playing on the set. It's like Disneyland.
Nor does the enchantment end with first impressions. The whole show is a gorgeous fairyland fantasy. Catherine Martin and Bill Marron deserve multiple medals for their boundless and psychedelic imagination, and for their exquisite aesthetic instincts. Luhrmann's Raj update is a fun and clever concept, but I think it's the design which it makes it so genuinely magical. They've created a world where the absence of fairies would be far more surprising than their presence.
And on top of all of this, we get Britten! Lots and lots of Britten! The allure of this score is a touch more elusive than the vice-like grip of, say, Peter Grimes or Billy Budd, but that's entirely appropriate, given the subject. I just love the way in which each of the play's three worlds is so distinctly evoked — and the ways in which they intertwine. Those spooky, sliding strings which open the opera are so atmospheric, you wonder that the Titania/Oberon scene could ever be staged without them. Hermia's and Lysander's "I swear to thee" duet is adorable, the operatic pastiche of Pyramus and Thisbe is a riot, and "Now until the break of day" is, of course, just one of those time-stands-still moments. Rather than replace it, the magic of Britten preserves and enhances the magic of Shakespeare; this should be impossible, really, and yet it seems to be true. And I think Alexander Briger does a pretty sterling job of drawing those threads out, and drawing them together. This Dream sounds as magical as it looks: what more could you ask?
I'm all conflicted about how to deal with the singers. The obvious hierarchy — Fairies, Athenians, Mechanicals — seems somehow slightly unfair, since it's such an ensemble opera. But since no other order makes any more sense, it will have to do — and really, why would I gripe about mentioning the excellent Tobias Cole first? I did find his Oberon rather tentative on opening night, but I suspect that was just nerves; by the second performance he was terrific: eerie, focused and quite otherworldly, with just enough edge in that soft, sweet tone to make him menacing as well as mystical. Besides, I do love those long blue claws. Rachelle Durkin is at her best as Tytania, shimmering her way through all the floridity and high notes with such ease that they sound like natural speech. Add her fiery presence and willowy beauty to the cauldron, and what you have is one very persuasive fairy queen.
One of the oddest aspects of the season so far as been my sudden, uncharacteristic soft spot for tenors. Lo and behold, Dream continues the trend, in the person of our Lysander, one James Egglestone, whom I've been waiting to hear in a proper role ever since he stole the show in the 2008 Christmas at the House. He has absolutely lived up to my expectations, with a gorgeous, vibrantly sung and unbelievably energetic performance — I don't know how he manages to sing so beautifully while tearing up and down all those stairs, but he does, and I'm very happy about it. Lisa Harper-Brown is a different sort of revelation as Helena — this long-awaited return to the company was my first encounter with her. I loved her immediately. She's such a tall, dashing figure on stage, she sings with polish and poise, and her gift for slapstick is considerable — and made all the funnier by the elegance which underpins it. Welcome back, Lisa, and please stick around.
Sian Pendry is an adorable Hermia, sounding very warm and contralto-ish and doing her usual brilliant line in hilarious facial expressions — like Rachelle's legs, Sian's eyes really should be insured by the company. The fight with Helena is comedy gold. And I covet both of her dresses. Luke Gabbedy is perhaps the most likeable Demetrius I've ever seen — his rejection of Helena seems to be motivated as much by confusion as by arrogance. The dark refinement of his singing is a good contrast to the expansive Lysander, and he too does a nice job of the physical comedy — the spill he takes on his entrance is seriously impressive.
Jud Arthur and Catherine Carby as Theseus and Hippolyta don't have a huge amount to sing, but when they finally materialise properly in Act Three (after their silent walk-on at the beginning, a concise substitute for Act One of the play, which the libretto omits) they're both in fine voice. Jud, after all, is OA's Captain of Swagger, so he's excellent as the authorative and gently sarcastic ruler; Catherine is radiant as his royal bride, and she manages the Royal Wave so convincingly that I'm sure she must be a secret Windsor.
As for the Rustics, well, they're really just a bunch of limelight hogs. In the best possible sense, of course. Yes, they're a bit over the top, but for this show, they have to be — understatement would seem out of place. As Bottom, Conal Coad has the most to do and the most to sing, and he certainly seems to be loving every minute of it, prancing about and generally acting like an ass, even before he has the ears to match. An ass, that is, with preternatural singing talent. The rest of the boys save their best party tricks for Pyramus & Thisbe, where Andrew Brundson (Snout) is a rather shocked looking Wall (with suggestively placed tap), Andrew Moran (Starveling) is fabulous as a mincing, silver-skirted Moon, Richard Alexander, a wonderfully slow-witted Cockney Snug, is irresistible as the Lion, and Richard Anderson's Swallow is just pompous enough to keep it all from going completely off the rails. But let's face it, the shameless thief of this scene is Stephen Smith as Flute. Or rather, Stephen as Flute as Thisbe. I don't entirely love Stephen's Urkel-esque take on Flute in Act I, but his Thisbe, pirouetting about in her frilly dress (and knickers), is a tour de force. You'd never know he was the cover (for an indisposed Graeme Macfarlane) — he's made the role ridiculously and adorably his own.
The boys of the chorus acquit themselves quite beautifully — I'm no great lover of boy sopranos, as we know, but this lot really do sound lovely, and their diction is remarkably good. The dancers — both Titania's pink entourage and Oberon's two blue henchmen — are wonderfully acrobatic, even if their clomping feet do occasionally interfere with the score's delicate moments. Anish Sanghvi is too cute for words as the tiny changeling boy. Alas, the most prominent non-singing role disappointed me. Tyler Coppin certainly looks magical as an elfin, Bollywood Puck, and his agility and energy are extraordinary, but I feel that his exaggerated, high-camp delivery tramples on the character's shadowy side — he provides the giggles, but not the goosebumps, of the role.
Good lord, what a populous opera. Writing it all up has been a little exhausting, and not nearly as fun as watching it, which I plan to do for a third time next week. Three will probably suffice — I don't want the enchantment to fade through overexposure, and besides, once Bliss opens, I think it will command my undivided attention. This is such an adored and excitedly publicised show that I'm sure it doesn't need any plugs from me. If you want to see it, you've probably already booked; and if you haven't, well, you might want to hurry up.