Virginia Opera opened its production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Harrison Opera House last weekend.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream sings of love in its various forms: forbidden, unrequited, jealous, renewing, hopeful, and spiteful. The work was composed by Benjamin Britten with a libretto adapted from Shakespeare’s text by Britten and his longtime partner, tenor Peter Pears.
In Virginia Opera’s production, the action begins before the show’s official start. Director Michael Shell has a perplexed costume designer and multiple divas wander the empty stage in distress while a stagehand sweeps the floor. The stagehand transforms into Puck, the show’s most iconic character. Conductor Adam Turner leads the Virginia Symphony Orchestra while turquoise-haired fairies sing and wave a copy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the air. So the mystical journey begins.
Next we meet Hermia and Lysander, who are deeply in love but prohibited from marrying due to Hermia’s forced engagement to Demetrius. Demetrius is chased by Hermia’s dear friend, Helena. Fairy king and countertenor Oberon yearns to steal the changeling boy under his queen Tytania’s care. Oberon’s servant, Puck, helps the story and its players meet a chipper end.
The operatic adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is noteworthy in several ways. First, few composers gave meaty roles to countertenors in 1960. Second, the opera features an unusually large ensemble cast – almost all of the characters from Shakespeare’s original play remain. Lastly, although parts of the script were cut for the sake of time, what remains is mostly unaltered from the original Elizabethan language.
Lighting and Projection Designer Driscoll Otto and Scenic Designer Shoko Kambara work in tandem to craft a visually breathtaking, creative, and minimalist set. Images and videos are projected on curtains and an industrial frame around the stage. The lovers are illuminated with passionate red lights, while blue and purple overtones shine on the fairies.
Shakespearean language requires precise diction and impeccable timing. It’s hard to speak and even harder to sing. Virginia Opera’s cast mostly rises to the challenge. David Blalock’s superior timbre and firm high notes cast a suitably romantic spell as Lysander. Kristen Choi shows reputable acting chops and a thoughtful vocal line as Hermia awakening in anguish to Lysander’s disappearance in the woods. Joseph Lattanzi and Mary-Hollis Hundley also put in first-rate performances as Demetrius and Helena.
The play within a play, Pyramus and Thisbe, receives an amusing treatment. Shakespeare parodies bad actors in the play; Britten takes it a step further, musically mimicking Italian bel canto composers. However, the comedic portions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream drag. Matthew Burns, Bille Bruley, Brandon Morales, and their peers in the theatre troupe are as physically funny as any skilled Shakespearean actors, but this subplot feels extraneous in the opera.
Owen Willetts’s portrayal of Oberon is startling and otherworldly, a thrilling match for his beautifully trained countertenor voice. His queen, Heather Buck, sounds laborious during Tytania’s recitatives (musical lines that imitate speech) but lightens to produce a more blooming sound during her aria, “Be Kind and Courteous.” Morgan White’s skilled dancing and movement produce an impressively acrobatic Puck. White speaks rather than sings, joyfully somersaulting across the stage in moments of splendor and contorting his body in dance-like motions of torture as Oberon releases his rage. 13 young women from the Governor’s School for the Arts serve as a spunky and well sung fairy chorus.
The mystical creatures of A Midsummer Night’s Dream are stunningly attired by Director and Costume Designer Michael Shell. Oberon’s long black leather jacket paints him as a supernatural villain, and Puck’s sparkly red suit compliments White’s silly and vibrant portrayal. Tytania’s shimmery majestic gown frequently billows out behind her as hipster fairies in wigs of all hues of blue and green emerge.
Puck’s famous monologue closes the show: “If we shadows have offended, think but this and all is mended: that you have but slumbered here while these visions did appear.” The colors and extravagance fade as the curtain goes down. Puck is back in his stagehand costume. Were the last three hours real? Or were they only a dream?
Fans of the original play will love this eerie operatic adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Others may struggle following the plot due to significant dialogue cuts, but will nevertheless be amazed by Britten’s ethereal sounds and Virginia Opera’s gorgeous visuals.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream plays in Fairfax, February 17 and 18. From there the show will travel to Richmond on February 23 and 25. Next up for Virginia Opera is Lucia di Lammermoor running in Norfolk on March 23, 25, and 27. Visit vaopera.org for tickets and more information.