Review: Britten’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” is Enchanting, Luminous, Hilarious – Lyric Opera of Chicago, November 17, 2010

Australian Opera and Legitimate Stage Director Neil Armfield was commissioned by Houston Grand Opera to present four productions of Benjamin Britten operas in Houston, including a new production of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” in 2009. Lyric Opera, that co-produced that work, scheduled it for Chicago for the Britten opera’s 50th anniversary – the third production of Lyric Opera’s 2010-11 season.

The conductors and every member of the cast were different between the Houston and Chicago sets of performances. Scottish conductor Rory MacDonald made his Lyric Opera debut.

The production incorporated many of the ideas of Houston Grand Opera’s Musical Director Patrick Summers, particularly the shimmering sets and costumes (designed by Dale Ferguson) of the fairyland. Summers’ ideas and the involvement of technicians worldwide to bring his ideas to fruition are chronicled in my review of a Houston performance at Incandescent Houston “Midsummer Night’s Dream” – January 25, 2009.

[Below: the fairies assemble on Midsummer’s Night as Queen Tytania (Anna Christy, left) holds the hand of the Changeling Boy ; edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera.]

Lyric Opera cast the world’s most famous counter-tenor, David Daniels, in the role of Oberon. Britten’s creation of that role for counter-tenor a half century ago provided an impetus for the training of the new generation of counter-tenors that Daniels exemplifies. His voice is hauntingly beautiful, and reinforces such magical sounds as the shimmering glissandi in the strings to portray a magical Midsummer night in fairyland. (For my review of another recent Daniels operatic performance, see: “Xerxes” Unexcelled – Houston Grand Opera, May, 2, 2010.]

[Below: King Oberon (David Daniels) encounters one of his fairy subjects; edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera.]

To provide a stark contrast between the mortal and fairy worlds, all six of the mortals are dressed in 1960 fashions. The two pairs of (eventual) lovers – Helena (Erin Wall) with Demetrius (Lucas Meachem) and  Hermia (Elizabeth DeShong) with Lysander (Shawn Mathey) – dress in collegiate styles and carry retro suitcases.

Like the couples at the beginning of Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte”, the tenor and mezzo are paired, as are the soprano and baritone. Canadian-American soprano Wall, an alumna of the Lyric Opera’s Ryan Center for young artists, is a vibrant, large-voiced Helena, bringing to Britten’s skillfully written vocal lines the confidence of her mastery of the roles of Mozart and Richard Strauss. (For my reviews of recent Erin Wall performances, see Groves, Wall, Lindsey Excel in Christopher Alden’s Harrowing, Hallucinatory “Hoffmann” – Santa Fe Opera, July 17, 2010 and Shining L. A. Opera “Magic Flute” on Sunny Matinee Day – January 11, 2009.)

Performing the self-centered Demetrius is another triumph for Meachem, whose career continues to build . (For my reviews of some recent Lucas Meachem performances, see Korchak, Coburn and Meachem Illuminate Alternate “Barber of Seville” Cast – Los Angeles Opera, December 5, 2009 and The Man Who Loved Women: Lucas Meachem’s Empathetic Don Giovanni – Santa Fe, July 31, 2009. See also Rising Stars: An Interview with Lucas Meachem, Part II.)

[Below: Helena (Erin Wall, top), upon awakening from a dream, finds that Demetrius (Lucas Meachem) has become attracted to her; edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera.]

Elizabeth DeShong’s Hermia, who has recently excelled in mezzo roles of heavier weight – the Page Boy in Richard Strauss’ “Salome” in San Francisco and Suzuki in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” in Santa Fe – demonstrated that her secure mezzo voice also fits Britten’s lighter fare nicely. Like Wall, she received advanced vocal performance training in Lyric Opera’s Ryan Center. (For a review of her Suzuki, see Kaduce’s Incandescent Cio Cio San, Jovanovich’s Injudicious Pinkerton, Emblazon Blakeley’s “Butterfly” – Santa Fe Opera, July 16, 2010.)

I had not previously heard Ohio tenor Shawn Mathey, much of whose career to date has been spent in Europe. But three of these four artists have had great successes in other operas I recently reviewed. Therefore, I was not surprised that the foursome proved uniformly excellent, with voices that nicely matched Britten’s meltingly beautiful third act quartet And I have found (Demetrius, Helen, Lysander, Hermia) like a jewel, mine own and not mine own.

[Below: Hermia (Elizabeth DeShong) is now together with her beloved, Lysander (Shawn Mathey); edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera.]

One set of  “Midsummer” lovers engage in a drugged one-night stand – the Fairy Queen Tytania (Anna Christy) and the mortal Nick Bottom (Peter Rose).  Christy is one of America’s leading coloratura sopranos, among whose recent successes reviewed by me are her Blonde in Mozart’s “Abduction from the Seraglio” with Peter Rose’s Osmin (see Cornelius Meister’s Admirable “Abduction”: San Francisco Opera – October 11, 2009) and Lisette in Puccini’s “La Rondine” in San Francisco (see The Remaking of San Francisco Opera Part II: Gheorghiu and “Rondine” – November 25, 2007.)

Rose, as Bottom, leader of the Artisans and star of their play, has emerged as one of the most consistently effective bassos in both comic and dramatic character roles, his signature role arguably that of John Claggart in Britten’s “Billy Budd” (see my review at Superlative: Original 1951 “Billy Budd” Catches the Santa Fe Wind – August 14, 2008.)

[Below: Queen Tytania (Anna Christy) showers affections on Nick Bottom (Peter Rose) whose head has been transformed into that of an ass; edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera.]

Britten’s music for the worlds of the fairies and the mortal lovers would have been enough for a pleasant evening at the opera, but “Midsummer Night’s Dream” provides what may be the funniest episode in 20th century opera – the play of “Pyramus and Thisbe” by the artisans. The Bard’s endearing pastiche of malapropisms has received layers of Britten spoofs of early 19th century opera, particularly Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor”.

Joining Rose’s portrayal of Bottom is tenor Keith Jameson (Flute and, in the play, Thisbe), Sam Handley (Peter Quince), Paul Scholten (Starveling), James Kryshak (Snout) and Wilbur Pauley (Snug). The absolutely zany play had the Chicago matinee audience laughing loudly.

[Below: the six noble mortals watch the play that the artisans have created, utilizing the talents of, from the left, Peter Quince (Sam Handley), Snug as the Lion (Wilbur Pauley), Nick Bottom as Pyramus (Peter Rose), Francis Flute as Thisbe (Keith Jameson), Snout as the Wall (James Kryshak) and Robin Starveling as the Moonshine (Paul Scholten); edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera.]

Britten’s opera has an important spoken role, that of Puck, one requiring acrobatic skill, played charmingly and zestily by Esteban Andres Cruz. The named fairy roles, which are parts for children, are Cobweb (Kenny Lumb), Mustardseed (Anna Stephen), Peaseblossom (Alexandra Oates) and Moth (Benjamin Hoppe). The rest of the fairies were performed by Anima – Young Saingers of Greater Chicago.

The Athenian nobility, seen only in the third act, is represented by the Theseus of Craig Irvin and Hippolyta of Kelley O’Connor. Damien Cooper was the lighting designer, Denni Sayers the choreographer.

For my reviews of other Britten opera productions by Stage Director Neil Armfield, see: Anthony Dean Griffey’s Imposing Peter Grimes – Houston Grand Opera, November 12, 2010, and

Houston’s Haunting, Inscrutable “Turn of the Screw” – January 29, 2010