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A superb Dream

Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
05/05/2009 -  & 8, 10, 13, 16, 19, 21, 23 May
Benjamin Britten: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Laura Claycomb (Tytania), Lawrence Zazzo (Oberon), Jamaal Grant (Puck), Celeste Gibson (Cobweb), Zoë Gotziaman (Peaseblossom), Iori Lewis (Mustardseed), Jamil Fiorino-Habib (Moth), Adam Luther (Lysander), Elizabeth DeShong (Hermia), Wolfgang Holzmair (Demetrius), Giselle Allen (Helena), Robert Pomakov (Bottom), Thomas Goerz (Quince), Michael Uloth (Snug), Alexander Hajek (Starveling), Lawrence Williford (Flute), Michael Barrett (Snout), Kelley O'Connor (Hippolyta), Robert Gleadow (Theseus)
Neil Armfield (Director), Dale Ferguson (Set and Costume Designer), Damien Cooper (Lighting Designer), Dennis Sayers (Original Movement Director), Allison Grant (Movement Director)
Canadian Children’s Opera Company, Ann Cooper Gay (Chorus Director), Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, Anne Manson (Conductor)

(© Michael Cooper)

For its final mainstage production of the 2008-09 season, the COC has a major hit on its hands. For the company’s debut production of Britten’s A Midsummer Nights Dream, they have wisely chosen a production from the Houston Opera, under the direction of Neil Armfield.

In 2001 we enjoyed Armfield’s Billy Budd (on loan from the Welsh National Opera) which won no less than seven Doras, Toronto’s theatre awards. Then the directorial and design coup was to place the action on a curved platform that continually moved up and down like a ship. It was not disguised as a sailing ship in any way - in fact it had a hi-tech look, with the mechanism of its operation clearly in view. He and designer Dale Ferguson have done something similar for Dream by placing a large green plastic canopy above the stage that rises and dips in conjunction with the slow-breathing cadences of Britten’s magical score. Other than that, the stage is quite bare, with some blue-green backcloths and exposed lighting fixtures.

The large cast, under the assured baton of Anne Manson (COC debut), is uniformly strong.

First to appear is the 20-member Canadian Children’s Opera Company supporting the four named fairies, Cobweb, Peaseblsossom, Mustardseed and Moth, who set a high standard for clear declamation right from the start. Four members of this troupe also perform admirably on instruments when Tytania orders them to entertain Bottom. (A note on the CCOC: it was founded back in 1968 as the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus so that the COC would have a troupe of children when needed in operas like Carmen and La Bohème. In recent years it has commissioned its own works and thus is truly a company. Every city should have one.)

Laura Claycomb is an ideal Tytania in a get-up that Aubrey Beardsley might have conjured up. Her voluminous train becomes a scenic element when required, as when she and Bottom snuggle down for the night. Lawrence Zazzo, airborne for the fist two acts, is her equal vocally. Jamaal Grant is an acrobatic Puck whose boyish voice clearly declaims every word. Two movement directors are credited and much stage action, notably Puck’s, is really a form of choreography, especially in the scene in which he is punished by Oberon for botching the spells on the four lovers.

The mortals are dressed in ordinary casual clothes of the era of the work’s composition and premiere, 1960. The four confused lovers are vocally well-matched, notably mezzo Elizabeth DeShong (Hermia) and tenor Adam Luther (Lysander). Adam Luther is still a member of the COC Ensemble Studio and has now made a strong showing in two mainstage productions this season (the first being Jaquino in Fidelio). Wolfgang Holzmair, an angular Demetrius, also deserves a prize for clear declamation. Giselle Allen neatly accomplishes the turnabout from imploring “spaniel” to indignant haughtiness in her quarrel with Hermia.

The six rustics are equally well cast and of course Robert Pomakov, as Bottom, dominates. He has stiff competition, however, in the scene-stealing department from Lawrence Williford as Flute/Thisbe. Starveling’s dog (uncredited) makes mellifluous contributions at key moments.

Britten composed a patch of big movie music for the entry of Theseus and Hippolyta. The glamour couple glide from stage rear on a moving platform in a shower of glitter, truly an MGM moment. Kelley O’Connor’s glamorous looks and voice make her a memorable Hippolyta alongside Robert Gleadow’s dapper duke.

The work truly is a marvel of concision in presenting the complications of Shakespeare’s play in just two and a half hours, with ample time for ruminative mood music from the pit. The COC has decided to run the first two acts together, resulting in a lopsided evening with a 90-minute first act. There’s nothing wrong with having two intervals - the concurrent La Bohème has three! Besides, it helps prolong the enjoyment of this marvelous entertainment.

With Dream, the COC has now had worthy productions of seven Britten operas. Any of them is welcome back, of course, but there is one glaring omission: Gloriana. Let’s hope this one is in the works.

Michael Johnson



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