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The forest in the Wolf Trap Opera Company’s new production of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a pretty menacing place. Blackness rises from a mound of inky feathers to envelop the Barns stage and canopy the audience. Trees are neon-blue lightning bolts that shoot vertiginously out of the ground and wear lines of skewered black plumes instead of leaves. (Have animal spirits overtaken the forest, or are these the remains of some sinister, predatory occurrence?) Dawn squeezes itself through the narrowest of doorways, and daylight registers as a mere flash of white fabric peering out from under one corner of black curtaining.
If Andrew Lieberman’s set seems unduly bleak, even in this era of unsettling deconstructions of Shakespeare, it suits Britten’s pitch-dark adaptation to a T. The composer of Peter Grimes, The Rape of Lucretia, and Death in Venice wrote his Midsummer in 1960, imbuing it with gobs of psychological insight but no more than a smattering of laughs. The fairy king and queen are chilly and formidable, the mismatched lovers really suffer for their shifting allegiances, and even the rude mechanicals must frolic through some terse, angular music.
But such are Britten’s skill at orchestral scoring and knack for uncovering the emotional heart of every scene that his dark-browed take on the play works astonishingly well. Much of the musical writing is ravishing. From the slithering string figures that open the opera to the haunting passages for boy-soprano choir (accompanied by clusters of chords on harp, celesta, and harpsichord) to the distant chorale of hunting horns that greets the morning, the score is as dazzlingly evocative as it is unsettling.
No less a highly regarded conductor than Briton Jane Glover is in the pit at Wolf Trap, andsome scrambled patches of string playing exceptedshe wrings maximum color from her chamber orchestra. Britten’s seriousness of purpose doesn’t mean that the score lacks warmth or romantic urgency: The music for the lovers flirts with Italian lyricism from bel canto through Puccini, embracing it, subverting it, reveling in its lovable excesses. Wolf Trap Opera has assembled a quartet of good-looking, fresh-voiced young singers as the lovers, all of whom understand that this Midsummer trades more on their anxiety than on our amusement. Tenor Eric Cutler’s Lysander is uptight, humorless, and confused, his ardor blossoming forth in the clarion delivery of his high notes. Adriana Zabala is the quintessential repressed romantic as Hermia, her lovely mezzo wrapping around her vocal lines with subtlety, her character’s heartache always palpable. And there’s a breezy rapport between Lauren Skuce’s Helena and Keith Phares’ Demetrius, her laser-beam-sharp soprano providing a no-nonsense rebuke to his suave, manly-man baritone.
The mechanicals, too, are cast from vocal strength, all of them proving to be very likable, understated comedians in their rehearsal sequences and in the deadpan antics of the play-within-a-play. Britten’s underscoring for their scenes is largely a poker-faced affair. He indulges in some insiderish musical jokingsnatches of older operas, little coloratura spoofs, guttural brass figures, sudden bursts of woozy vocal harmonybut little of it is overt, and much of it is a laff riot only to the kind of folks who wind up on the Texaco Opera Quiz. It’s to the credit of the singers playing the mechanicals that they latch onto these musical gags and let them bloom into more generally appreciable clowning. Foremost among near-equals are the black-voiced bass Oren Gradus as Quince, tenor Lawrence Brownlee in a highly entertaining (and highly campy) turn as Flute, and bass Joshua Winograde, whose lanky Bottom wears his egotism lightly and lapses into endearing moments of introspection.
It’s in the fairy kingdom that Britten allowed his imagination to take fullest flight, writing Oberon as a countertenor and Tytania as a coloratura soprano, and enrobing them in music of an ethereal and remote beauty. Jeffrey Kim possesses an almost androgynous beauty as Oberon. Although his voice is seriously underpowered in its upper range and tumbles inelegantly into baritonal chestiness, its creamy timbre is haunting. Anna Christy is a sparkling Tytania, cute as a button and smilingly aloof, with coloratura of pinpoint clarity. Puckwhom Britten wrote as a young man’s speaking roleis here taken by a female Catholic University of America undergrad, Abby Wood. She does a capable enough job, even if her tough-grrrl swagger and blunt delivery sometimes seem an odd fit with the world of this opera, but why would Wolf Trap ignore the professional acting pool in this Shakespearean-rich area?
Even more than in other operas, the stage direction is a critical factor in the success of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: It’s as if Britten composed a psychological subtext and left the director to re-create Shakespeare’s play to fit it. Ned Canty’s staging might warrant the dreaded adjective “safe”he hasn’t found one drop of erotic heat in this decidedly NC-17 story, and nothing is made of the sadistic element built into the Oberon-Puck relationshipbut he has nonetheless honed his singers into a fine ensemble and, together with his designers, found an arresting and coherent vision for the work.
That vision is aided bymore accurately, it’s largely defined byKaye Voyce’s strikingly imaginative costumes. Lovers strip off choking slate-gray Victorian flannels to reveal diaphanous, saffron-colored East Indian silks whenever their passions reach an expressive peak. Boy-soprano fairies scamper on- and offstage underdressed in bits of boarding-school uniforms and nightshirts. Oberon sports glowing blue talons and Tytania a Day-Glo plastic breastplate. It’s all cool stuff that nicely counterbalances Lieberman’s foreboding set and Britten’s dark score.
With smart and challenging productions like this one and last year’s The Coronation of Poppea, Wolf Trap Opera is quickly cementing its position as Washington’s very own Glyndebourne in the ‘burbs. CP