PHILADELPHIA — After 28 years, North American audiences finally have the chance to see Robert Carsen’s lauded staging of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This wonderful production premiered in Aix-en-Provence and has been restaged many times in Britain and in other countries. Now it has been taken up by Opera Philadelphia, which in recent years has proven to have some of the smartest operatic programming on the East Coast. The company has been impressing critics and audiences with its new-music-forward O Festivals, each one named for its year. (Festival O18, for example, caused a sensation last fall with the world premiere of Anthony Roth Costanzo’s Glass Handel.) With Midsummer, Opera Philadelphia continues to fulfill another part of its mission: to bring important productions from around the world to the United States.
Rather than sticking to a literalistic depiction of the woods of Fairyland, Carsen sets Shakespeare’s beloved story in a more symbolic land of beds — in the first act on a huge and inviting one, in the second and third on a series of smaller ones that allow the characters to switch places in various couplings. In an opera that traffics heavily in sleeping, dreaming, and less-than-subtle sexual suggestion, the bed imagery on stage shows a wry and thorough understanding of the text. Each bed has a green cover to evoke the forest setting, and in a brilliant detail of costuming, the Athenian characters, dressed all in white, acquire more and more green stains on their clothing as the opera goes on, hinting that they have spent considerable time lying down for various purposes.
Britten, who adapted the opera with his partner, Peter Pears, hews closely to Shakespeare’s text; the most notable restructuring is the omission of most of the setup in Act I. Only six words of the libretto — a minor clarifying detail uttered by Lysander to make up for the condensation of Shakespeare’s first act — are not found in the play. Britten’s eerie, modernist harmonies are a surprisingly perfect fit for Shakespeare’s language; both the words and the music estrange the other from our ears. The familiar text sounds new in this setting, in part because the music alerts us to just how foreign early modern English is to our ears.
One reason that Britten is such a master of vocal music is his deep comprehension of texts. Combined with a preternatural compositional fluency, this allows him to portray the mood and undercurrents of texts with striking musical effects. In the scenes with fairies, for instance, ethereal glissandi in the strings convey the sense of a topsy-turvy world in which fairies are real, a man might be transformed into an ass, anyone could fall in love with anyone, and it all may have been a dream anyway. The scenes with the mechanicals feature simpler, more rustic music that evokes the style of English folk songs, and the lovers’ music is lush and romantic.
The cast is well chosen, and many of them have appeared in this production on other stages. Miltos Yerolemou delighted the audience as Puck with his physical comedy and perfect timing as he somersaulted, sprinted, and jumped around the stage. Countertenor Tim Mead was a magnificent Oberon, full of authority and charm, and soprano Anna Christy sang the challenging role of Tytania with grace. The six mechanicals who perform Pyramus and Thisbe were superb with the comic material, especially Matthew Rose, a hilarious Bottom.
The advent of this production to North America is yet another triumph for Opera Philadelphia. Their Festival O19, which includes two company premieres and two world premieres, has just been announced for September. For the world of opera and the wider world of classical music, this organization is a gift as well as a model.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream with music by Benjamin Britten and a libretto by Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears continues at Opera Philadelphia (the Academy of Music at Broad and Locust Streets, Philadelphia, PA) through February 17.