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Britten’s Dream Warms Midwinter Houston

Brown Theater, Wortham Center
01/23/2009 -  & January 25*, 31, February 4, 6
Benjamin Britten: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Iestyn Davies (Oberon), Lauran Claycomb (Tytania), Norman Reinhardt (Lysander), Liam Bonner (Demetrius), Marie Lenormand (Hermia), Katie van Kooten (Helena), Matthew Rose (Bottom), Jon Michael Hill (Puck), Robert Pomakov (Quince), Adam Cioffari (Snug), James J. Kee (Starveling), Steven Cole (Flute), Jon Kolbet (Snout), Ryan McKinny (Theseus), Leann Sandel-Pantaleo (Hippolyta), Madeleine Delgado (Cobweb), Ekaterina Gorlova (Moth), Valerio Farris (Mustardseed), Eliza Masewicz (Peaseblossom)
Houston Grand Opera Orchestra and Children’s Chorus, Karen Reeves (children’s chorus director), Patrick Summers (conductor)
Neil Armfield (director), Dale Ferguson (set and costume designer), Damien Cooper (lighting designer), Dennis Sayers (choreographer), Brian Byrnes (fight director)

I. Davies (Oberon), L. Claycomb (Tytania), J. M. Hill (Puck)
(© Felix Sanchez/Houston Grand Opera)

Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream has one of the most immediately-recognizable openings in all opera. Recognizable triads strung together by gossamer glissandos progressing in organic, breathing rhythms immediately transport the audience to another world. Even with eyes closed, one can feel something magical beginning to take place. Houston Grand Opera’s new production of the opera capitalized on the magic in the score, with a stunning visual production matched by transcendent singing.

Dale Ferguson and Damien Cooper matched the arresting musical opening with a visual display that transports the audience to the fairy-world. A gorgeous emerald green set, dimly lit, is framed by a mobile “sleep sheet”, a large piece of projection plastic that is suspended above the action for most of the opera and floats up and down in dreamy, breath-like motions. The effect is of a canopy of enchanted trees swaying in the wind, the very breath of Oberon, Tytania and their fairy minions visually resonating through the entire stage. The gem-tone lighting of the forest was augmented by amethyst when Oberon’s potions were administered and, throughout, one felt that the utmost care was taken when conceiving of how to visually point up the opera’s enchantment.

In addition to inspiring the strongest visual elements, the otherworld brought out the strongest singing. Britten was attracted to the various “worlds” represented in the opera, and was especially effective in representing the magical domain of the fairies with special vocal fachs (a lyrical coloratura soprano for Tytania, a countertenor for Oberon), a group of fairies sung by a children’s chorus, and the speaking role of Puck. Hearkening back to Britten’s previous opera, The Turn of the Screw, the instrumental writing below these magical characters is a virtuosic example of orchestration for harp, celesta, harpsichord and tuned percussion.

Leading the quartet of magical characters, Iestyn Davies, making his HGO debut, was a brilliant Oberon. His bright, even countertenor floated gloriously above Britten’s instrumental evocations and was never too creamy to become non-present. There was an attractive edge to his tone, and this helped heighten the sense of Oberon’s mischievous nature. Coloratura runs, dissonant leaps and perfect diction were all executed with ease.

HGO favorite Laura Claycomb returned and conquered as Tytania. Her combination of beautiful stage presence, creamy, flexible voice and superb acting skills made her the perfect foil for Davie’s Oberon, and the two singers stole every scene when either was onstage. When both were together, it was an embarrassment of vocal riches. Both were clad in gorgeous costumes: Oberon in black, Tytania in bejeweled white, with multiple chiffon trains flowing yards behind her. Both were sartorially linked by thorned, paisley patterns on their clothing and plumes for crowns.

The third part of the opera’s magical quartet was the excellent HGO Children’s Chorus. This is a notoriously difficult part for children to sing, with many complicated rhythms and melodic lines, but the young singers ate the score up. Especially impressive was the performance of “You spotted snakes” at the end of Act I, which contained dynamic nuance and blend of tone one usually expects only from the finest adult choir. Karen Reeves deserves unmitigated praise for the preparation of her group. The fairy costumes were eerily effective—pale white wigs and makeup adorned by small cherub wings that heightened the possibility of having the group behave benevolently or malignly.

John Michael Hill completed the quartet excellently as Puck, speaking and tumbling with abandon across the stage, again linked the Oberon and Tytania visually by the paisley patterns tattooed on his skin. Mention must be made here of his interaction with the orchestra, where he is deftly represented by a virtuosic trumpet part, expertly realized by Jim Vassallo.

The extremely impressive magical elements were foiled nicely by the troupe of amateur actors. Matthew Rose sang Bottom fearlessly, with excellent diction and just the right amount of buffoonery. Steven Cole channeled Peter Pears (the originator of the role of Flute) in a performance that, in the opera-within-the-opera in Act III, stole the show. Britten’s bel canto parody brought the perfect amount of exaggerated singing and acting to Cole’s bright tenor voice.

While nothing was truly disappointing about the production, the mortal lovers were perhaps not as evenly cast as the other roles. Liam Bonner, one of the HGO studio’s most successful alumni, was the standout as Demetrius. He had the perfect swagger and voice for this role, never strained by its register and projected true attraction both to Hermia and Helena. Marie Lenormand and Katie van Kooten sang well, with Lenormand’s Hermia sounding noticeably more comfortable, making her able to be freer and more convincing with her acting. Norman Reinhardt seemed stretched by Lysander’s high tessitura, especially in his first arrival onstage. This might have simply been a case of nerves, as his voice got better and better as the opera went along, and he matched Bonner and the two ladies wonderfully in Britten’s masterful quartet in Act III. The acting troupe and quartet of mortal lovers were clad in street clothes, and this was perhaps too far a jump from the magical world of the forest. These costumes made one feel that they had been transported into the forest from 1965 Manhattan, not the Athens of antiquity. Likewise, the white proscenium stage that appeared for the production of the troupe’s play in Act III seemed a bit too plain a setting for the wedding of the Duke of Athens. In the small roles here of Theseus and Hippolyta, Ryan McKinny and Leann Sandel-Pantaleo sang well.

The HGO orchestra played Britten’s tricky score with ease and Patrick Summers expertly limned the many contrasting aspects of the score, emphasizing the seemingly impossible variety of colors that Britten draws from his carefully-selected orchestration. My only wish is that the harpsichord part could have been more present.

This is the second production in HGO’s multi-year Britten series. Neil Armfield has a great understanding of how to make Britten’s magic work, and this year’s production and last year’s Billy Budd make one eager for future Britten productions.

Marcus Karl Maroney



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