Is it Cosi fan tutte with fairies? Or is Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream a borderline-modernist opera masquerading as a Shakespearean romp?
Such questions are going to be asked in this Britten anniversary year as opera companies look beyond the usual Peter Grimes and towards A Midsummer Night's Dream, whose distinctive pedigree has England's greatest home-grown playwright and opera composer coming together over a 350-year gap. The result isn't the walk in the woods one might expect. One still hears German radio broadcasts of credible companies struggling to come to terms with the piece. But the Metropolitan Opera's high-style Tim Albery production with James Conlon leading a smartly-selected cast represents a near-ideal opportunity to come to terms with what the piece is and is not.
The 1960 opera shows Britten's fateful Balanese sojourn fully integrated into his musical language with such a sense of alternative aesthetic that the first two acts almost completely eschew the fundamental string-based sonority. In its place are fresh, precisely chosen sounds and fearlessly bare textures using wood block, finger cymbals and trumpet. Musical gestures are surprisingly abstract for a major grand opera. You could accuse Britten of talking to himself at times, so personal and idiosyncratic are his word-settings and overall compositional choices. Compared to this, Mendelssohn's Midsummer music is from a distant planet.
Britten's imagination is most dramatically specific in the fairy world of Tytania and Oberon, whose otherness – unseen by the temporal world – must have resonated with this composer, who moved among the upper echelons of society but, as an artist, gay man and conscientious objector in World War II, knew what it was to be an outsider. Musically, one hears a bit of autopilot with the two pairs of lovers. The rustic theater troupe reveals Britten's limitations with comedy: He's fine when humor arises naturally from the depths of a character's personality. But in situation comedy, he resorted to out-and-out cliches like chortling bassoons. Shakespeare's superb comic succinctness is strangely ignored.
In this major revival, which opened on Friday night, the Met's 1996 production doesn't attempt to create a leafy Shakespearean netherworld. Clean, uncluttered surfaces came in fanciful designs with plenty of doors for the more farcical scenes, walls that are never at right angles (suggesting the opera's out-of-kilter reality) and brilliant use of cool colors such as chartreuse, turquoise and deep purples. You're never in any particular locale or milieu (except perhaps a hotel lobby designed by Philippe Starck), but it's a stylish, inviting environment. The wittiest touch in Antony McDonald's design is the crescent moon's reflection on which the fairies meet, sit and lounge, reminding you that they're so weightless that they find repose and solidity on visual illusions.
Patrick Carfizzi as Quince, Evan Hughes as Starveling, Scott Scully as Snout, Matthew Rose as Bottom, Barry Banks as Flute, and Paul Corona as Snug. (Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)
Conlon could've exercised a more interventionist hand in the opera's pacing, but gave much of the music particular nobility and created a cogent, singer-friendly framework. As Oberon, Iestyn Davies's tone and word articulation was a consistent joy. In the role of Bottom, Matthew Rose sang with an integrity that's rare in comic roles and did the gag humor in ways that accomplished what Britten missed. As Flute, Barry Banks reminded you that low-down comedian Benny Hill was Shakespeare's not-so-distant descendant.
Everyone sang well, from major roles such as Kathleen Kim's Tytania (whose claim on the changeling boy had particular pathos), down to minor roles such as Ryan McKinney's Theseus and Tamara Mumford's Hippolyta. Among the lovers, Michael Todd Simpson (Demetrius) had a near-perfect combination of tone and enunciation. The mostly-spoken role of Puck was intentionally feral in the hands of Riley Costello, but also rather charmless.