An enchanting 'Midsummer Night's Dream' opens at the Metropolitan Opera

James Conlon
The Star-Ledger

By Ronni Reich

It’s not a gala event, a new production or a star vehicle. It doesn’t quite have the widespread appeal of a warhorse, or the connoisseur’s cachet of a rarity.

But Benjamin Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is enchanting at the Metropolitan Opera.

Written in 1960 in collaboration with his tenor Peter Pears, the opera faithfully adapts Shakespeare’s comedy, using the Bard’s words almost exclusively.

As Britten depicts the conflicts between a fairy king and queen and a quartet of lovers — and a local theater troupe that stumbles into their lives — his craft is masterful. Every contour, timbre and style of music seems fitted exactly yet imaginatively to characters and mood, and conductor James Conlon and the Met orchestra do him justice.

Their performance is crisp, lithe and vivid, from the glistening opening slides that slowly rise up and down, like breaths in a deep sleep, to the grandiose fanfare of a loudmouthed actor, steadfast romantic declarations and otherworldly lullabies.

Tim Albery’s whimsical 1996 production, last seen in 2002, holds up decently. Still, it could use a firmer directorial hand, and the opera has such creative potential it would be nice to see something new.
Sets and costumes by Anthony McDonald combine realistic and fantastical elements, as in a dream world. Tytania, for example, could be a top executive, with a glittery power suit and pumps, but, then, she also has wings.

The stage looks like a diorama with stars and moon inside a black frame. Inside, the mortals cross jagged mountains and traverse a forest that appears as though it has been turned on its side, with a tree branch skewered horizontally through four neon green panels.

For the elevated world of the fairies, Britten employs the highest voices. Iestyn Davies brings a charismatic, animated presence to the vengeful king Oberon. In a rare leading countertenor role, Davies’ sound is round, shimmering and focused.

As Tytania, Kathleen Kim handles her high-flying part with cool-toned ease. Delightfully, she holds nothing back when, under a spell, she can’t keep her hands off a man with a horse head.
Like the play, the opera is at its core an ensemble piece.

The children’s chorus, directed by Anthony Piccolo, is exacting and energetic in percussive interludes, and the featured quartet of young fairies is polished. Actor Riley Costello is a youthful Puck who rhythmically chants his lines.

The lovers’ music is often warm and sensuous, with a bit of colorful drama when the sisters fight. The sense of lush overflow when the four finally reconcile and appreciatively drink in each others’ affection is a highlight of the performance. All sing with fresh, opulent voices, with Elizabeth DeShong a standout as a vocally sumptuous Hermia.

Britten’s score galumphs along with playful earthiness for the “rustic” actor’s troupe. As Bottom, Matthew Rose is spot-on with his voluminous bass, his adroit physical presence and his embrace of the character’s self-aggrandizing tendencies.

When they finally perform their masque, the composer digs mercilessly into the book of common theatrical mishaps — exaggerated meter, trouble with high notes, a missed cue.

He adds a sing-song dance for Thisbe/Flute (played by Pears in the original) and a faux bel canto aria, handled with aplomb here by Barry Banks. Britten also supplies thudding, halting speech for the “slow of study” Snug, who plays the lion, and quirky antics for the actors who play “wall” and “moonlight.” The Met’s players inhabit the outright silliness — and harmonize beautifully.

Britten’s music is easy to find this year, as his centennial celebration is underway. The emotional weight of works such as “Peter Grimes” and “War Requiem” should not be missed, but “Midsummer” provides a uniquely festive and invigorating way to honor his legacy.