Truly one of the most beguiling of Benjamin Britten's operas, his 1960 adaptation (with longtime partner and co-librettist Peter Pears) of Shakespeare's fanciful comedy, "A Midsummer Night's Dream", was given a highly original makeover in Canadian music director Robert Carsen's production at the 1995 Festival of Aix-en-Provence. With some surprising cinematic touches added by film director Francois Roussillon, the production has been faithfully reworked in this wonderful April 2005 staging at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona. Virgin Classics has done a superb job in capturing the magic of this performance, which hopefully signals a trend toward even more such DVD packages.
Highlighting the sexual tensions of the original play on a minimalist, blue-green-dominated set, Carsen foregoes period costumes to focus on the essence of the various themes by retaining the humor while still evoking a constant aura of mystery in his translation. Anyone familiar with the play knows that Shakespeare saturated his text with twisting ironies among a diverse set of characters, and Britten creatively responds with a unique musical style for each group - the folk-like pastiche of brass for the rustic characters (i.e. the "mechanicals"); the more noble sounds of strings and woodwinds which reflect Britten's more recognized style for the lovers; and the ethereal blend of percussion, harpsichord and harps full of glissandi for the immortals. These distinctions lend musical shadings that create the ideal panorama of emotions and comic elements to pull off Shakespeare's tale.
The international cast is superb and given the multiple nationalities represented, surprisingly compatible. The ensemble starts with the extraordinary American countertenor David Daniels as the fairy king, Oberon. In a relatively understated performance despite his resplendent green attire and matching green hair, he commands the stage with the right mix of unbridled romanticism and searing malevolence. Indicative of the part as originated by Alfred Dellar, the lower register of his voice is used splendidly, especially on his key Act I number, "I know a bank where the wild thyme blows". Even though he is known far more as a Handelian, Daniels's obvious affinity for Purcell (as evidenced on his recital discs, "Serenade" and "A Quiet Thing") serves him well here. Spanish soprano Ofelia Sala offers a full-bodied Tytania with a lovely voice that encompasses the coloratura of the role and a comic deftness to move fluidly from impervious to smitten as Bottom's unintended paramour. A high point is her delightful version of Act II's "Be kind and courteous to this gentleman".
As the first pair of lovers, Lysander and Hermia, Canadian tenor Gordon Gietz and American mezzo-soprano Deanne Meek exude passion effortlessly, sing beautifully together and provide the grounding necessary for their later comic scenes. German soprano Brigitte Hahn and with an especially dark timbre, English baritone William Dazeley, appear as the more comical second pair, Helena and Demetrius. The dynamic interaction of these four, whether quarreling or fleeing from each other due to Puck's intrusive magic, produces an engaging romp, all the while making Britten's music vibrant with emotional fervor and clear diction. English veterans from the 2004 Glyndebourne production fill the remaining principal roles. Bass-baritone Peter Rose makes a fine, subtle Bottom with a strong voice. Managing to remain expressive even in a full-head donkey mask, he lends an endearing quality and makes the most of his recital of his dream of love with Tytania. Proving a boisterous band, the mechanicals work well as an ensemble with tenor Christopher Gillett an appropriately naive Flute and bass Henry Waddington a lively albeit controlling Quince.
In the speaking role of Puck, the physically antic Emil Wolk is not the young figure one generally envisions in the role but a mischievous, middle-aged sprite who plays with the rhythms of Shakespeare's prose a little too freely (the cadences feel somewhat off). Costumed as green-hued gentleman's gentlemen with mustaches, the chorus of fairies is played liltingly by the Escolania de Montserrat under choirmaster Joaquim Pique. Michael Levine's strikingly bare but highly dramatic-looking set consists of a deep blue backdrop with just a crescent moon and most of the stage taken by a large platform laid out as a huge bed covered with a green bedspread. Two huge pillows are revealed underneath the bedcovers, and they become multi-purposed as river banks for the lovers to set themselves and as Tytania's bed at the end of Act I.
The bed theme remains constant throughout the opera with, for example, three beds suspended dramatically in mid-air, two containing the pairs of lovers and one containing Tytania and Bottom. They ascend and descend depending on the plot turns. Lighting is also used dramatically, especially in the Act II entrance of Oberon and Puck. This is a visual as well as aural treat, and under Harry Bicket's expert baton, the Symphony Orchestra of the Gran Theatre del Liceu performs the music with dazzling dexterity and disciplined pacing. The 160-minute opera is presented on two discs with Acts I and II on the first and Act III on the second, and the package also includes a small pamphlet with credits, color photos and scene titles. Subtitles are available, though the credits in the recording itself are strictly in French.