note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
Boston Lyric Opera’s (BLO) goal of making opera more approachable to young people and the general public is undeniably laudable. Sadly, its latest production of Benjamin Britten’s score of William Shakespeare’s comedy of errors, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” disappoints both neophytes and opera fans.
Despite fabulous performances by Metropolitan Opera star Susanna Phillips as Helena and internationally-acclaimed British baritone, Andrew Shore, as Bottom, (who consistently stole the spotlight), some theatergoers walked out during intermission.
This cast boasts many rich, lovely voices, but the overall production is a potpourri of John Conklin’s abstract pop art sets, an awkward translation (even though the opera is sung in English), and Kaye Voyce’s strange assortment of costumes that underplay the story’s mystical fantasy and its characters. Instead of elves and sprites frolicking in the forest with gossamer wings and twinkling garb, the PALS Children’s Chorus wear regimented, cadet-style uniforms. The youngsters, ages 6-14, who hail from Greater Boston and Brookline, are nevertheless adorable, especially when they sing and play tongs and bones, small, tinkly instruments.
It’s praiseworthy that the BLO selected colorful abstract drawings from Lynn children, who participate in the community’s RAW Art Works program, that were created as set pieces in the American Repertory Theater’s Scene Shop. However, these colorful amoebic-shaped props representing forest glades, along with multi--shaped orbs that drop from above or serve as background, representing the moon, eyes, etc., are distracting.
Music Director David Angus and the orchestra are effective, adding harplike magical flourishes during fantasy scenes, but Britten’s music at times is more conducive to speech, not song. In fact, effusive Karim Sulayman as Robin Goodfellow, (Puck), that mischievous, errant messenger of Oberon, king of the fairies, (countertenor John Gaston) never sings. He recites his part, with fanciful, physical flourishes.
True to Shakespeare comedies, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” includes the Bard’s signature mistaken identities, trickery, tomfoolery, and play-within-a-play. While bewitched couples Hermia (Heather Johnson) and Lysander, (Chad A. Johnson), Demetrius (Matthew Worth) and Helena (Philips), run around in circles, chasing each other, rejecting and embracing the wrong one after being drugged with a magic herb, most entertaining is when Nadine Sierra as Tytania, queen of the fairies, (whom Puck also drugs at Oberon’s command), becomes enamored with crude amateur actor, Bottom. Bewitched, Tytania is unaware that Puck dubbed Bottom with a donkey’s head and attributes. As she sings adoring love songs to him, lavishing him with kisses and goodies, he brays, nods and kicks approvingly.
These rustic actors’ play-within-a-play performed in the castle to entertain Duke Theseus (Darren K. Stokes), Lady Hippolyta (Ann McMahon Quintero), and the two, betrothed mortal couples is too long and repetitive for the royal guests - and us. “Oh,what fools these mortals be,” Puck observes early in the second act. Perhaps the BLO’s changes to Shakespeare’s and Britten’s masterpiece are, indeed, foolhardy.
BOX INFO: Two-act opera, score by Benjamin Britten, appearing with the Boston Lyric Opera through May 10, at the Citi Performing Arts Center, Shubert Theatre, 265 Tremont St., Boston. Tickets start at $34; discount tickets for students, and groups. Call 866-348-9738 or visit blo.org.