The new ENO Britten Midsummer Night's Dream directed by Christopher Alden will draw fire because it's an oppressively dark reading of the opera, and by extension, of Shakespeare. The anti-update crowd will howl, but the concept is utterly valid, both in terms of the score and in the insights it brings about Britten's personality. The set (Charles Edwards) is perfect. Heavy, grey walls of an old style school, identical classrooms, all symbols of regimentation. The dense forests outside Athens become a "blackboard jungle". It's suffocatingly oppressive, but that's exactly how it's meant to be, emotionally. Britten, who'd been cosseted by his mother up to that point rebelled against the suppression of individuality. He "was" Puck, fought over by Tytania and Oberon.
There are other oblique hints, like the refrain, commonly known as "Girls and boys come out to play". For Britten life was a mask from which he escaped in fantasy. It is perfectly valid to read in his Midsummer Night's Dream a coded roman à clef, even if it's not quite so in Shakespeare. Plenty of homosexual references throughout, which are perfectly valid in the Britten context. There are fairies in this Midsummer Night's Dream, but they're concealed. Anyone can be magical, unique and gay. No need to sprout wings to prove it.
Potentially, this could have been a brilliant production, full of insight and pathos. But what happened? The concept is right, the set's correct and there are some extremely good performances. In the beginning characters slump against walls, and move as if sleepwalking. This is fine, for we're entering the realm of sleep, escaping from the "public" of school into the "private" of school in a symbolic sense. But after a while the effect wears off and we're supposed to be in alternative universes. The lovers, the workers, the fairies and the nobles inhabit different spheres. The drama comes when they interact. If they're not differentiated, the impact of the surreal is neutered. The plot's crazy, when you think about it. Here it's rendered dull. The idea of mind-numbing regimentation doesn't need to spread out this far into the opera. The workmen, for example, are usually a scream, because they're so off the wall. Here the wall is the only spot of colour. (and it's a Queen).
The Second Act is brighter, enlivened by putting the nobles in the Royal Box to watch the workmen's play. Nice blending of real and unreal, but it's too little, too late. The workmen's play is literal, too, taken straight from the kind of toy theatre Britten almost certainly knew about. In fact, there's probably one in the catalogue of his childhood possessions. This is a valid idea because for Britten fantasy was more powerful than reality. But it's a concept too subtle for most to pick up on. This audience howled with laughter, perhaps grateful for a moment of brightness in monochrome grimness.
Often with dull staging, attention falls on the orchestra for relief. It reflects Britten's fascination with early English music - itself a form of escape from the stolid tastes of early 20th century Britain. He used early form because he liked the vigour and earthiness - listen to the beaten percussion, expressed wonderfully on stage by the schoolboys beating windowframes. (Oddly enough a reminder of prison riots that start from similar small beginnings.) It's not simply because Britten's setting Shakespeare. All his life he was inspired by early and Renaissance music. Many of my friends enjoyed Leo Hussain's conducting because the music itself is so enjoyable. But Midsummer Night's Dream is like a series of masques where the fun happens when they jangle against each other. Here, the individuality of the units was subsumed into the same kind of generic wash as Alden's direction.
Willard White pretty much carried the whole performance. Dream casting! His Bottom is earthy, and stands out all the more as he's easily the most mature and experienced person in this cast. He gets to take his clothes off, which is symbolic. Bet he enjoyed that, and what Tytania proceeded to do to him. Britten's music for Tytania is quite quirky, with a wild edge Anna Christy brought off extremely well. William Towers substituted for Iestyn Davies a few hours before curtain up, and did extremely well, considering he almost certainly didn't do a full rehearsal. He really should be heard more often as countertenors like he, with a dark, distinctive timbre, can be much more interesting in some roles than pure and choirboy.
How I would have liked to love this new ENO production because it's bursting with detail and potential. The basic concept can't be faulted. But it falls flat because Alden's direction is hamstrung by being too literal, where it could fly, brazenly, audaciously, into the realm of the surreal. This might as well have been a concert performance against a splendidly evocative backdrop.