Virginia Opera’s Excellent Dream and Me: One of Us Got Better in Act II

Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the Virginia Opera production this year that I most looked forward to (my preview comments can be found here).  At the end of Act I of Saturday night’s performance, I turned to the fellow seated to my left and asked how he liked the opera so far.  He replied that he was enjoying it, probably more than he had expected.  I also enjoyed it, but frankly was feeling a little let down.  I will explain why, but though my enthusiasm for Act I was muted, I can enthusiastically and happily report that Act II and beyond was all that I hoped for.  It became enchanting as a fairy-tale should, sweeping me into the fantasy, moving me to the sweet spot, the suspension of disbelief.

I keep examining why I did not find Act I more arresting.  Was it the performance, or did it just take me a while to get my head in the game?  My first thought is that the deletion of Shakespeare’s Act I by composer Benjamin Britten and his co-librettist Peter Pears made the introduction of each new character in Act I a little jarring.  I also blame the staging; there was not much of a set, mostly curtains that moved about and the creative use of lighting.  I was longing for an enchanted, moonlit wood just outside Athens, to be dazzled, but I was having a hard time conjuring up that scene in my mind given the bare floor of the stage.  The fairy costumes were quite good for the fairies, and at the end, for the Duke of Athens and his bride to be, Hippolyta, but the more modern dress of the young couples, Hermia and Lysander and Helena and Demetrius, was somewhat spell-breaking.  And while Puck’s darting movements (acted in a non-singing role by J. Morgan White) were flittingly fairy-like, his tumbling, though impressive for it’s athleticism, distracted from Puck’s impish fairy nature.  Also, while I was enjoying Mr. Britten’s music, it seemed light to me; each character seemed supported by mainly one lead instrument.  These distractions kept my head bobbing above the immersion I was seeking.

 Countertenor Owen Willetts as Oberon, King of the fairies. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Countertenor Owen Willetts as Oberon, King of the fairies. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

What did I like about Act I?  Best was Britten’s casting of a countertenor as Oberon, the fairy king.  Owen Willetts who played the part had an excellent voice and sang very well; and the high pitch of his voice did give the role an other-worldly effect, and his suggestive costume, somewhere between sexy and creepy, worked for his fairy-ness.  If “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” is to be redone, Mr. Willetts should definitely audition wearing that costume.  The other characters, and almost twenty in total, were introduced in Act I, so many in fact that it is hard to single them out. Each role contributes (two-thirds were singing roles) but each is too brief in individual vocalizations to gauge them and sometimes the singing is deliberately distorted for effect, but it is fair to say that the cast was excellent overall.  I will single out a few more that made impressions.  Matthew Burns had an agreeable bass-baritone voice playing Bottom and gave an excellent comedic performance as an overbearing thespian who spends some time as a jack-ass changeling.  Tenor Billy Bruley was a hoot in a skirt role, singing and playing the female lead of Thisbe, in the play within a play.  I continue to be impressed with Kristen Choi, a strong voiced young soprano playing Hermia who appeared recently in Washington National Opera's Madame Butterfly.  It was, however, soprano Heather Buck playing Tytania who upped the production’s game with her return in Act II.  She has a very engaging voice, and her presence was felt anytime she was on stage.   The youth chorus contributed significantly to the fairy charm.

 Heather Buck as Tytania, Queen of the fairies. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Heather Buck as Tytania, Queen of the fairies. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Why was I swept up by Act II?  By then, I already knew all the characters, their motivations, and the setting.  Also, the action was more focused – especially the group of thespians rehearsing in the wood and the delightful interlude of Tytania and her beloved jack-ass, Bottom, lying together in her silvan bed chamber.  Few props were needed, and in Act II, the lighting was especially effective in creating atmosphere.  Kudos to lighting designer, Driscoll Otto.  The Tytania's fairy entourage, as well as the lighting, adorning the bed chamber at Tytania’s beck and call, added charm to the fantasy.  In the final scene of this act, we encounter Shakespeare’s pathos and the beginning of the resolution of conflicts, a relief of tension that was needed. The choppiness of Act I became sweet caring and caresses in Act II, even though still comedic.  The music had also succeeded in casting its spell and by the end of this act I found myself wanting to focus more on the music.  Kudos to conductor Adam Turner and the Virginia Opera Orchestra.  Overall, there was a seductive harmony to this Act.

Act III was about young lovers emerging from their dreams and the farce, the play within a play, which was quite funny.  I laughed, but also wondered why Shakespeare added this part, just for laughs?  Aside from the hilarious telling of the Pryamus and Thisbe tragedy, as played by our rustic thespians, we see young lovers choosing death over living without their beloved.  So in all, the comedy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream shows us young lovers eager to make commitments they don’t yet fully understand and offers us two endings in one play, couples coming to terms with real love and young lovers who choose to end their lives.  Thus, we have a playwright who used his incredible inventiveness and craft to create a story with fairies and humans, and further delight us with a play within a play, all to soften the blow of seeing ourselves struggling with love, and we have a composer who used his incredible inventiveness and craft to reinvigorate this tale and enliven us to receive it. 

All wells that ends well; yet, there are loose ends: Oberon has stolen the thing Tytania struggled to keep, and Demetrius is in love with Helena because he was drugged.  But maybe this is a fitting point to conclude after all.  I offer my ending below:

Life and love, loose ends left hanging,

Ever after but a dream,

Mature we see the play,

Move by us as a stream

And laugh bittersweet,

And in a troubled way

Endings sweet, not all they seem

The Fan Experience:  I looked outside Saturday afternoon and the lawn, driveway, and road were covered in a half inch of sleet and it was still coming down.  I tried walking in the driveway and it was no go, too slippery.  I was worried. I came back out an hour and half later and the hardened sleet had turned to slush and was manageable.  I made it without trouble, but this performance was undeservedly poorly attended; I suspect the weather had a significant effect. 

There are two more opportunities to see this excellent production and enrich your lives and laugh a lot, both in Richmond, on February 23 and 25.  I wish I could be in Richmond to take it in once more.  There is a lot to this opera to digest in one viewing.  It can be enjoyed on several storyline and musical levels.  I strongly recommend reading Virginia Opera’s Dr. Glenn Winters’ blog posts and/or attending his entertaining and informative pre-opera talk forty-five minutes before the opera for insights.  Get there early; late comers may have to stand.