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Opera Review: The Kingdom of Counterpane

By Superconductor @ppelkonen
Opera Philadelphia mounts A Midsummer Night's Dream.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Opera Review: The Kingdom of Counterpane

"Away, away, you are an ass." Oh whoops, that's the wrong play.
Matthew Rose (left) and Anna Christy in A Midsummer Night's Dream.Photo by Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia. 

Like many excellent operas written in the mid 20th century, Benjamin Britten's excellent adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream has never quite penetrated into the conscience of opera goers who believe that the art form met its end with the death of Giacomo Puccini in 1926. So that made it imperative to jaunt down and catch one of Opera Philadelphia's last performances of the opera, mounted here in a handsome and well-travelled production by Robert Carsen. This show, like most of Opera Philadelphia's programming was at the Academy of Music, a lush and elegant space from a better managed time.
Mr. Carsen's production reimagined the forest outside Athens on an enormous bedspread, with Cyclopean pillows and a vast, tilted cotten acting surface. Onto this surface walked Oberon (Tim Mead) and Tytania (Anna Christy), the feuding rulers of the fairy realm. The green sheets, and jewel-toned backgrounds suggested an ethereal otherworld. Huge white pillows on stage right enabled Oberon's henchman Puck (Miltos Yerolemou) to do his physical comedy, exiting from the set when needed by diving, jumping and even wriggling offstage. The otherworldly atmosphere was helped by the first slithering chords from the pit, where the orchestra was led by Corrado Rovaris.
Tytania (the spelling is Britten's) and Oberon are written for the highest voices, and Mr. Mead's soaring countertenor brought an unearthly quality to this character. Ms. Christy proved apt in the challenging part of Tytania, delivering Britten's tricky coloratura writing and engaging in appropriate comic business. Her court of fairies were sung by child trebles, each an accomplished young actor in their brief bits of business. Puck, on the other hand is a spoken part, played by Mr. Yerolemou with exuberant force.
Into this wood wandered two groups of Athenians. First: the quartet of lovers: Lysander (tenor Brenton Ryan) his beloved Hermia (soprano Siena Licht Miller) Helena (Georgia Jarman) and Demetrius (baritone Johnathan McCulloch). This last is in love with Hermia and spurns Helena, creating an ugly situation and necessitating their flight. Britten wrote in a parodistic style for these four conventional characters, giving them complicated quartet scenes and mining the emotional palette of 19th century bel canto. Their artificiality was stressed by their costumes: white Victorian travel clothes that got further stained and ripped as their misadventures in the forest ramped up.
The second group were where Britten's dramatic and musical sympathies clearly lay. Led by Nick Bottom the weaver (Matthew Rose), this sextet of rude Mechanicals (Athenian tradesmen) came to the woods to rehearse their play: The Most Lamentable Tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe. Their rehearsals were interrupted when Puck gave Bottom the head of an ass, and made him the new object of the affections of a drugged Tytania. This led to most lamentable comedy and tragical mirth as Mr. Rose played his scenes in an enormous mask, his voice resonating in his scenes with Ms. Christy.
Act II was staged as literal bed-hopping as the four mismatched Athenians pursued each other. Puck was there to save matters, leading each of the quartet on wild chases across the stage. He finally arranged it so Lysander was with Hermia, Demetrius with Helena. At the start of Act Three, the three couples (the third being the transformed Bottom and Tytania) were suspended on beds flying high above the stage. One felt a note of relief as they came in for a landing. Off the lovers went to the Temple. Off came Nick's ass' head. And Oberon and Tytania were reconciled, at least for dramatic purposes here, even though it seemed to stand littel chance of being a permanent rapproachment.
The rest of the opera focused on Pyramus and Thisbe, the play-within-a-play rendered here with some of Britten's wittiest music. The players did not disappoint, from Mr. Rose's emphatic Pyramus and his efforts to woo Thisby (Miles Mykkanen, singing at the upper limit of his tenot voice. Brent Michael Smith was very funny as stage director Peter Quince. Bass Patrick Guetti shone as Snug, roaring his way through the part of the Lion. As Starveling (also playing Moonshine) Zachary Altman managed to leap an octave every time he sang the word "moon." Finally there's tenor George Somerville, who made the most of his part as Snout the Tinker. In the play, he was stuck with playing the ungrateful role of the Wall. The hapless thespian troupe had the Academy in stitches, before Mr. Rovaris led the orchestra in the final blessing of the house from Oberon and Tytania.
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