Tuesday, October 29, 2013

<i>A Midsummer Night's Dream</i> Is a Comedy, Right?

Posted By on Tue, Oct 29, 2013 at 9:30 AM

Midsummer Nights Dream Metropolitan Opera Benjamin Britten Tim Albery
A Midsummer Night's Dream is a comedy, right? I kept asking myself that during a recent performance at the Met of Benjamin Britten's operatic adaptation, because the English composer (with co-librettist Peter Pears) transformed Shakespeare's lark about love potions and faeries into something far more sinister. It's less mischievous than machinating—and cruel. We first see Puck tearing off a fairy's wing; don't expect any Magic Flute-like silliness. The overture begins ominously, with sliding notes suggesting not just the story's undercurrent of magic and mutability but also its emotional instability; the score is steeped in wonder, anxiety, mystery and cautious beauty, treating the tale's spurned and unrequited loves as tragedy.

Tim Albery's production underscores this darkness, particularly Antony McDonald's stupendous sets. In Act I, they scroll toward the left, fairyland becoming forest and then deeper forest, an increasingly nightmarish trajectory: the "woods" where Lysander and Hermia bicker are depicted as craggy mountains with dark clouds, like Chuck Jones doing Wagner; by Act's end, the woods are lighted a wicked Ecto-Cooler green. Act II is set within canted, German Expressionist walls, leading me to write in my notebook, "WHAT WOOD IS THIS?!"

Comic relief does arrive, from the company of actors preparing their Pyramus and Thisby production. Matthew Rose as Bottom steals the show, particularly once he has been transformed into an ass: his voice cracks, his legs kick out suddenly, as though he really can't control them. You suspect the actor may have really been the victim of a faerie spell. These interludes are necessary respites from Britten's otherwise very serious exploration of love. The play's happy ending here feels hard-won rather than inevitable, the music taking on well-earned majesty, grace and beauty. In the theater as in life—love is not usually so light.

The Met's last performance of the opera this season is on Halloween. More info here.

Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart

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