Scottish Opera’s new production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream seems to open in midwinter. Snow falls, fairies hurl snowballs and the aurora borealis flickers and arcs across the darkened sky. Meanwhile Britten’s score swoons and sighs, its drowsy clouds of string tone wafting above gently snoring basses to create an atmosphere whose every glimmer evokes perfumed warmth. It should be a contradiction, but it doesn’t feel that way at all. Dominic Hill’s direction, Tom Piper’s designs and Lizzie Powell’s lighting (it’s hard to separate their contributions) create a visual world of opposites, illusions and inverted expectations; a setting for magic and misrule, which last time I checked is pretty much exactly what’s needed in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, whether Shakespeare’s or Britten’s.
So action that’s supposed to be taking place outdoors actually happens indoors – a haunted glasshouse with tarnished mirrors, and a scuffed parquet floor – and the general aura of fantasy generates its own dream logic. Beds float in mid-air, the fairies are dusty, fuzzy things that could have been swept out from behind a sofa, and Oberon and Tytania (Lawrence Zazzo and Catriona Hewitson) resemble members of the Addams Family. They’re creepy and they’re kooky; again, this is surely exactly what Shakespeare ordered, and what Britten delivered when he composed these roles for a countertenor and a coloratura soprano. Hewitson sang with crystalline brilliance, while Zazzo had a blanched sound to match his ghostly features; just sufficiently off-kilter (in an otherwise sensuous sound world) to register as uncanny.
Britten begins and ends in fairyland – there’s none of that tedious Athenian exposition (a brief wordless opening tableau representing Shakespeare’s preliminaries is one of Hill’s few miscalculations). Enchantment is the default here, and in that context the four human lovers are inevitably destined to be overshadowed, which is a pity because Scottish Opera’s team are a likeable bunch, singing handsomely in ever-grimier pyjamas. Charlie Drummond, as Helena, injected a touching hint of desperation – just a little tightening and brightening of the voice at the apex of a phrase – as she pleaded with Demetrius (Jonathan McGovern). No fear of the Mechanicals being upstaged: Hill presents them like extras from Last of the Summer Wine, though David Shipley, as Bottom, has as rich and shapely a voice as anyone on stage and carries his donkey’s head with an awkward dignity.
But then Britten knows what he’s doing, and Hill lets him do his job. Experiencing this opera on disc or screen, one sits with gritted teeth through the Act Three amateur dramatics. It’s salutary to see that scene in a real theatre, and hear the laughter (it’s one of those passages – like the pantomime antics in Act Three of Der Rosenkavalier – that critics hate and audiences invariably love). If I don’t say much about the conducting of Stuart Stratford, that’s because the pacing seemed spot-on and the playing was as virtuosic and as subtle as I’ve heard from any UK opera orchestra. And because the last word has to go to Michael Guest: a punky, athletic Puck, whose angular grace put jump leads on the whole thing and whose final flight of physical magic ended the show in a gasp of delight. The crowning contradiction: Britten gives his last word to a character who never sings. It works – it all works. Three and a quarter hours felt very short indeed.
At the Wigmore Hall, Sir Andras Schiff was left to rejig a short Haydn festival after a member of Quatuor Mosaïques tested positive for Covid (yes, it’s still happening). The quartet’s leader Erich Höbarth and cellist Christophe Coin joined him in two piano trios – one (in A flat) relatively rare and the other (with the so-called ‘Gypsy Rondo’) about as well-known as any Haydn trio has ever been. In between, the tenor Kieran Carrel sang six of Haydn’s English-language canzonettas with a voice as clear and sweet as an Austrian Eiswein. Add keyboard playing as characterful as Schiff’s, and it was possible to hear these brief salon songs – composed as money-spinners while Haydn was in London – as a proto-Romantic precursor to the song cycles of Beethoven and Schubert.
The whole concert was just as winning. Schiff isn’t always the most genial of performers, but in assembling and introducing a programme on the hoof, he appeared to have relaxed – setting daredevil speeds for his string-playing colleagues and gently teasing at the flow of Haydn’s lovely, lilting slow movements. He played a fortepiano (a reproduction, apparently, of an instrument from 1805) and after the ear made its initial adjustment, there was nothing not to like. Cadential chords had a nutty, earthy crunch; left-hand figuration jangled like a zither, and it was all perfectly transparent. Schiff didn’t have to play down, and the string players didn’t have to play up: they just made music.
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