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Britten: A Midsummer Night's Dream

Davies / Christy / Keith
Clayton / Nelson
Gura / Valentine
Whelan / White etc

Director: Alden & team
English National Opera Orchestra/Hussein

ENO at The Coliseum, London 21 May 2011

This was a long and disturbing evening, divisive in its critical and audience responses (you won't guess that from ENO's selective quotes) - "Boos fought with cheers in a playground-style brawl with no clear winner" The Observer.

As an old timer who saw the early productions of this and Britten's other operas, it was hard to take the unrelieved ugliness of the set and Alden's bleak preoccupation with the most sordid aspects of school life and of Benjamin Britten's; at odds with the surface beauty of most of the music.

It is all plausibly explained in the extensive essays in the programme (one of them a vivid account of schooldays pederasty) - but one tends to read those on the way home, not for briefing beforehand.

So, you have to jettison for ever what becomes unworthy guilty pleasure in one's naive acceptance of Shakespeare's well loved story as taken by Mendelssohn and Balanchine and filmed at Sadler's Wells a decade ago for a delicious DVD [BalanchineMidsummerNightDreamPacificNorthwestBallet]...

The execution of Alden's elaborate fantasy was excellent, as were musical values, but did not preclude ennui; the first 'half' (two full length Acts played without pause - why?) felt inordinately long.

Most of the singing was exemplary (Iestyn Davies had recovered from his first night indisposition and Anna Christy made a memorable, creepy school matron) and it all went smoothly, the nastinesses explicit.

The disjunction between surface beauty of the music and Alden's merciless emphasis on the realities of school life then (now still?) makes for an evening which is far from the "entertainment" which one used to seek in a night at the opera. It cannot be dismissed by those of us who would prefer to return to a time of innocence, a fantasy which Britten himself punctured successively in all his operas from Peter Grimes to Death in Venice.

Read as many other reviews as you can get hold of.

My inclination is towards Musical Criticism's stance "Whether or not Britten had lurid thoughts about the boys in the original production, or how he felt about his own schooldays, is neither here nor there."

Anne Picard in The Independent draws the parallels in the entire canon; several find Alden's concept acceptable, but feel that its realisation was not good enough to hold attention without longeurs... "the initial listlessness is hard to forgive" MusicOMH.

And note that Alden is not alone this year; see Tazewell Thomson's updated production at Boston - - 4 session online class for people to learn more about the background - - a great way for the company to get recognition - -

Peter Grahame Woolf

Photo by Erik Jacobs for the Boston Lyric Opera.