Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream

Christopher Alden's production may have pleased the critics but, argues Helen Wallace, he puts an ill-fitting concept ahead of the music

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Director Christopher Alden was roundly booed on the opening night, as critics panted to pen their five-star reviews. It was a classic clash of responses. Paying punters felt cheated, rightly so: they’d had to witness the comic life being beaten out of Shakespeare’s most magical comedy by a Big Idea. Critics salivated over the deadly cleverness of Alden’s conceit, and its delicious literary and biographical possibilities.

But could those critics just imagine for one moment that this might be someone’s first Midsummer Night's Dream? That one of those young people English National Opera (ENO) longs to attract had wandered into the theatre without a thorough knowledge of Britten’s inner psyche? Dazed and confused wouldn’t begin to cover it.

‘On the eve of his wedding,’ we are brazenly told in the synopsis, ‘a man returns to his old school. Long-forgotten memories of his schooldays come back in the form of a dream.’ The fact that this man is Theseus, and has to wander about the stage in aimless silence for the first two acts, taking his tie on and off, is just the first of the dramatic glitches.

The central conceit is that Oberon is a paedophile schoolmaster who grooms his ‘fairies’ with drugs to do his bidding, with Puck as the former favourite now replaced by the Changeling Boy. So far, so good: it’s distasteful, but apt, to identify the composer himself with Oberon, a charismatic figure who loved young boys but tended to lose interest when they hit puberty.

And the fact that these fairies have become disaffected schoolboys in the 1960s, hooked on marijuana, finds a resonance in Britten’s own feeling about their ambiguity: he was ‘struck by a kind of sharpness in Shakespeare’s fairies’ and found Puck ‘absolutely amoral and yet innocent’.

But while this idea worked on one level, it was laid onto the whole drama with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. If Oberon, excellently sung here by Iestyn Davies, is a gay schoolmaster, where does Tytania fit in? Poor Anna Christy had to play her as a sexually frustrated automaton who kicks poor old Bottom (Willard White) in a feeble dominatrix show, while singing her voluptuously tender arias of love. Not for the first time, the music and the drama clash horribly. In the all-male atmosphere, the appearance of school girls (Hermia and Helena, Tamara Gura and Kate Valentine in lavish voice) feels arbitrary, and their lovers’ tiffs a side issue, as does the arrival of a tailor (Bottom) into the school playground.

Monochrome and monothematic, the oppressive schoolyard set never changes, so the vital sense of transformation (so brilliantly expressed in the music) is lost. This Dream is a dreary nightmare from which no one can escape: the whole dynamic of the drama dies, never more so than when Puck sets fire to the school, a vision undermined by the jarringly enchanting, drowsy music that wafts up from the pit. Yes, Britten’s slithering glissandi and use of twelve tones give this score its strange, subtly ambivalent eroticism, but it simply doesn’t have the malignity of The Turn of the Screw, even if Alden wishes it did.

The final straw came in what should be the highpoint of the evening. A Dream where the rude mechanicals’ play barely raises a laugh, is a Dream robbed of its comic soul. We had sodomy (just to ram the point home, so to speak), urinating, masturbating and vomiting, even a loud ‘you can f*** off’ to improve Shakespeare’s text. I cannot remember a more excruciating, leaden-footed attempt.

I suppose Alden would see that as a mark of success. But then he seems to have been only interested in making an opera about Britten and his inner demons, whereas Britten (and Shakespeare) were making a comedy about the fundamental power of love.

Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine

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