A Midsummer Night’s Dream review – Scottish Opera triumphs with nightmarish take on Britten | Scottish Opera


Visions of pastel-clad fairies playing in an elysian woodland are quickly dispelled in the opening moments of Scottish Opera’s new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Director Dominic Hill, artistic director of Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre, has reimagined Britten’s opera as a dystopian psychodrama. Tom Piper’s set is a mid-20th century interior, all mirrored glass walls, overturned chairs and beds appearing to float high above the stage. Here, night is a time of uncertainty and even fear, presided over by fairies costumed like something out of a Tim Burton gothic fantasy.

It’s an effective visual counterpoint to Britten’s multi-layered score, in which the lush romanticism of the lovers’ music and the deceptively simple writing for the comedy of the rustics is contrasted with the eerie percussion-inflected way he conjures up the fairy realm. Britten’s masterclass in orchestration can sometimes make the opera coolly impressive rather than truly engaging, but the commitment of Hill’s production doesn’t allow this to happen. And although the Freudian undertones add subtle layers of meaning to the production, ultimately the main strengths here are its delightfully slick physicality and superb musical values.

Superb musical values … David Shipley as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Superb musical values … David Shipley as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photograph: Jane Barlow/PA

Dream is a work for an ensemble cast and Scottish Opera has found a uniformly strong company, including an excellent children’s chorus as the mischievous fairy retinue. The standout performances, perhaps inevitably, are from countertenor Lawrence Zazzo, malevolent but disturbingly seductive as fairy king Oberon, well met here by Catriona Hewitson’s ethereal and otherworldly fairy queen Tytania. In the speaking role of Puck, Michael Guest is slyly sinuous and quicksilver, acting as much through physicality as with voice. The addition of the puppet changeling boy, with puppeteer Caleb Hughes, is suitably creepy and yet affecting.

The rustics’ play, which Britten reimagines as an opera-within-the-opera is a point where audience goodwill can start to falter, coming as it does after the two-hour mark. Here, however, it emerges triumphant due to the sure-footed comic timing of the motley crew of rustics led by David Shipley’s larger-than-life Nick Bottom. The role of Flute the bellows mender (written for Britten’s partner Peter Pears) offers a minor scene-stealing opportunity that Scottish Opera emerging artist Glen Cunningham seizes with both hands, transforming from shy, stuttering lad to campy 19th-century operatic heroine with visual and vocal glee.

Under conductor Stuart Stratford, the Orchestra of Scottish Opera reveal Britten’s score in beautifully delineated detail, the pacing sure-footed without feeling rushed.

At the Festival theatre, Edinburgh, until 5 March.

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