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Britten A Midsummer Night's Dream
English Touring Opera
Cambridge Arts Theatre 30 March

English Touring Opera is in excellent health, celebrating 25 years of taking opera to communities "from Truro to Perth and back again". Missed locally in Hackney and Dartford, and prompted by The Independent "Hike miles to see this", we chased ETO to Cambridge (an easy drive from East London by the M11, with inexpensive parking right in the centre). Happily it was a perfect day to spend an afternoon exploring several college gardens in their springtime glory, and to walk by the Cam before going to the opera.

This was ensemble opera at its best. Invidious to pick out names; the overall standard was world class and the orchestra's response to Michael Rosewell eclipsed memories of other productions in large opera houses. Cambridge Arts Theatre, with its excellent acoustics, is a perfect venue for this inventive and intimate production (it had sounded 'muzzy' at Hackney). The production, in tandem with The Marriage of Figaro, is touring to a total of 17 venues country wide throughout the spring, taking in the Aldeburgh Festival and finishing in Bath on 2 June. No-one should miss it!

Joanna Parker's set suggests a beautiful but potentially dangerous woodland. Most innovative in this production was the disturbing presence of the 'faeries' in the action, never far away and more than a little sinister. These fairies are malicious rather than charming, dressed in earthy colours and materials. The mortals' costumes come from the mid-17th century - the mechanicals dressed appropriately for their professions, and the lovers and court on puritan and cavalier models. A chorus of mischievous fairies is played by eight local children in each town ETO visits.

Every twist and turn of the interlocking plots is visualised and achieved with smooth exactitude, breathtaking moments in which music and visual theatre combine with a feeling of rightness and newness. My own only serious difficulty is with the complicity of stage and theatre audiences with the cruel humiliation of the rustics in their performance - but the blame has to be Shakespeare's, not Britten's, though for me the parodies of Handel, Donizetti, Puccini, Mussorgsky etc are funniest first time heard.

Less obvious is Britten's tribute to Schönberg and the world of 12 notes in the musical language of A Midsummer Night's Dream, as explained by Michael Rosewell's A Musical Note. The ETO programme is worth acquiring for this, and for James Conway's lengthy and insightful programme note which explores Shakespeare's play and the Britten/Pears libretto in thoughtful depth.

Full cast & more press photos below: for a vivid depiction of the individual characterisations I commend you to click onto Roderick Dunnet's review in The Independent.

Touring to 2 June: http://www.englishtouringopera.org.uk/spring_tour_2004.htm#SpringTour2004


Oberon & Tytania










Puck & fairy

Theseus & Hippolyta










© Peter Grahame Woolf