A Midsummer Night's Dream
An unusual beauty: "A Midsummer Night's Dream"
There is something conceptually and stylistically unusual about making an opera from a well-known theatrical text. Part of me is tempted to question the mindset that looks at a play like Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and thinks "let's make an opera version." It seems to speak to a certain kind of theatrical aesthetic, a distinct kind of consumer need in the theatre that may have its counterpart in our twenty-first century popular culture in the idea of a "cover song" or a "concept album" - either way there is something strange and something unusual about operatic adaptations of theatrical works and I was treated to an exhibition on just what incarnation this kind of performance can take with Opera Australia's QPAC showing of Benjamin Britten's "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
This is a strange and beautiful visioning of the opera, odd, unusual, kitsch, exotic and psychedelic all at once. It is a visual spectacular, both deeply beautiful and starkly unusual and that is owed, no doubt and in no small part to the direction of Baz Luhrmann, one of Australias visionary directors of the twentieth and twenty-first century, renowned for strange, unique and oddly compelling revisioning and imaginings of classic texts. The concept and the design for this production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is both odd and yet compelling, spectacular and massive in scope. The design of Catherine Martin and Bill Marron, fueled by Luhrmann's unique and distinctive imagination thrusts this show into a unique setting: the world of the British Raj in 1920s India. This is juxtaposed against the world of the fairies, also Indian-infused visions of mythical and religious characters from the Hindu and Brahman ideology; what results is a fantasy of cosmic appeal, visually delightful and unique in every aspect of the term. This is a luscious, magical show, colourful, mirthful, playful and yet physically compelling and visually powerful. It is a triumphant imagining that is both playful with Shakespeare's script and Britten's score and yet, strangely faithful to it as well. There is something conceptually strange when one thinks "Midsummer Night's Dream....in 1920s India?" and yet, it is wonderfully realized and actually works both on a visual level and as a theme. The "Athenians" are depicted as the British colonials, with their mortal morals and squabbles and the "fairies" are depicted as a display of Indian gods and goddesses reminiscent of Vishnu and Krishna who inhabit a completely alien world and a separate reality that exists alongside, but invisible to ours. This works a treat and actually does communicate both the essence of the well known Shakespearean story and also elements from Hindu and Brahman theology and mythology as the intersection between the world of mortals and the world of supernatural deities come colliding together in magic and in mischief.
Again, I was pleased to hear Britten's compelling and starkly unique score delivered by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra and the opera was steered under the navigation of conductor Paul Kildea, again this was a triumphant partnership and apt leadership, poised, elegant, colourful, masterfully restrained and seemingly effortless as the premier musical artists in Queensland deliver, with deceptive ease, a complex and varied musical score renowned for both its' difficulty and its elusive brilliance.
Delivering the fairy king of Oberon was Tobias Cole who managed a vocally demanding role well, his is not an easy or enviable task as Britten has this part written as a vocally challenging counter-tenor. Cole is a vision of godly power and enigmatic danger as he is both wicked and wise. He is balanced by Tytania, realized speldidly by Lorina Gore who, similarly tasked with a vocally demanding role, rises to the challenge and delivers. The Athenians are realized by James Egglestone as Lysander, Luke Gabbedy as Demetrius, Dian Pendry as Mermia and Jane Ede as Helena. All are visually wonderful as their roles and each brings a distinct and individual flair to their performance, delivering a warmth and kind of believability that is not often found in the opera. A stand out performance is delivered from the "rustics" lead by a powerhouse and stupendous performance by the larger than life Conal Coad as Bottom, the weaver. It was his towering ego and titanic performance that was a stand out for the opera and an instant crowd hit, the stand out scenes being both the rustics "play within the play" (or "opera within the opera" as your tastes dictate) which was a bombastic and hilarious satire of the art form of opera itself. The other stand out scene was Coad's Bottom being transformed into an 'anatomically correct' mule. This was a hilarious and beautifully imagined segment, brought to full fruition by Coad who was crude, rude, monstrous and utterly brilliant.
In all the singing and the chaos a stand out performance is given by Tyler Coppin who has he only all-speaking role in the show and delivers the mischievous and wicked Puck. Realized as a depiction of Krishna he mercilessly mocks the mortals, the show and the audience much to their delight and splendor. He is a physical triumph moving with a kind of naughty grace and to be the only all-spoken role in the opera is a challenge which he rises to expertly. The whole performance is beautifully choreographed with a visually wonderful use of poses and body movement reminiscent of yoga and meditation as well as Indian religious symbolism and iconographic poses of gods and mythic figures. It is a wonderfully moving show, with bodies used brilliantly and the stunning set and costumes realized to their full potential.
Britten's operatic re-imagining of Shakespeare's classic seems to lend itself to the weirdness, the oddity and the unusual beauty that this performing of it delivers. There is something inherently strange about the premise of the entire show, something unusual just in the undertaking of this kind of work, both conceptually and in style and yet, it is a thing of beauty, no matter how unusual it may appear or how difficult it may be to understand. This show celebrates and revels in its unusualness, its weirdness, its glamor, its humor and its magical beauty and it is a thing that delivers, without apology, all the oddity and imaginative creativity of a unique classic work realized in a uniquely brilliant way.
"A Midsummer Night's Dream" shows in the Lyric Theatre at QPAC untl the 9th of June. Not to be missed! Tickets available from http://www.qpac.com.au/event/OA_Midsummer_Nights_Dream_12.aspx