(Opera by Benjamin Britten) (Directed by Neil Armfield) (Adelaide, 2 March 2021)
“Lord, what fools these mortals be!” That’s what the impresario said about staging The Dream, one of Shakespeare’s wisest, wittiest and most surreal plays, full of beautiful poetry, but a nightmare to stage, invariably a disaster. Britten saw that it would make for better fare as a short opera, although the singing parts are eccentric (and the overall effect, flipping the switch to matinee vaudeville, appeasingly cartoon-like – Quoth Auden: “Dreadful! Pure Kensington”). So, here, is the set, but it is entirely apt for this production, a dappled blue-green slice of aberrant Australian bush with twinkles of light and shifting silhouettes (designed by Dale Ferguson). It’s a long way from Athens, but less erotic than some Greek literature.
Everything shifts: what appears to be an immense, translucent, polycarbonate sheet, breathes and stops (redolent of sleep apnea), and dances above and upon the stage; Oberon, kinky Fairy King (counter tenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, crisp and clear in his singing albeit borderline alto/castrato) hovers like a drone above the action, while earth-bound Puck (an energetic and likeable Mark Coles Smith) hurls himself about and co-ordinates the dreamers in a meddling fashion. Meanwhile, Tytania (a superb Rachelle Durkin) wrangles her cast of attendant fairies (the Young Adelaide Voices). The daydreamers, the human and deliberately interchangeable star-crossed lovers (Andrew Goodwin as Lysander, Sally-Anne Russell as Hermia, James Clayton as Demetrius, and Leanne Kenneally as Helena (particularly good), all straight from a ’50s sitcom) and the pantomiming mechanicals, offer carnal comic relief.
The subtle harmony, shifts of tonal colour from ethereal to corporeal, and overall mood of Britten’s score are sweet and were well interpreted (though somewhat sedate and muted) by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra under Paul Kildea.
The Mechanicals’ shenanigans reminds us how cruelly comedy dates. But the group work hard at being liked, and are liked, led by the most important of them Warwick Fyfe, as Bottom, a rural Falstaff, in fine voice and mugging to advantage, plus, best behaved of the lot when leashed, ‘Lock’ (the director’s dog) as Dog.
On balance, we’ll take Mendelssohn, or even Peter Grimes, thanks, but this was a production that elevated the best of the material, and you can’t do much better than that.
“If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.”