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Great Britten

A Midsummer Night's Dream
Opera North, Manchester Powder Her Face
Royal Opera, Linbury

18 June 2008

12:00 AM

18 June 2008

12:00 AM

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Opera North, Manchester

Powder Her Face
Royal Opera, Linbury

At certain times all conditions seem to conspire to favour some opera composers, and to make others seem virtually impossible to produce satisfying accounts of. At present everything is going Britten’s way; every time I see a production of almost any opera by him my opinion both of it and of him rises; while I can hardly remember when I was last really satisfied by a performance of a work by Wagner or Verdi. A lot of that is due, no doubt, to the comparatively undemanding nature of Britten’s vocal writing, and to the consequent lack of need for stars. Despite the popularity of some of his major operas, few famous singers have chosen to perform in any of them, Jon Vickers being the only artist with ‘super-stellar’ status who has regularly sung in Peter Grimes. Certainly other great artists, such as Heather Harper and Simon Keenlyside, have made Britten a central part of their repertoire, but they are or were team-singers, which is just what he needs.

Britten’s lack of interest in vocal glamour or in writing roles which few performers would have the stamina to undertake was partly a canny move by a consummately practical professional — but then Wagner and Verdi were that too, and look what they ended up demanding. Britten, much more than those two greater masters, wrote with a particular group of performers in mind, his whole oeuvre has the ethos of something composed within a powerfully conditioning social framework, and what is remarkable is that many of his operas have turned out to be viable outside that framework and ethos.

One, it has seemed to me, that failed that test is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but thanks to the miraculous production of Opera North I have happily revised my opinion of that too. Seen in the least auspicious setting — what else could you call the Lowry, Salford Quays, the centre of an urban jungle masquerading as a well-planned landscape garden? — it demonstrated various things. One was that the maximum effect can be gained with the minimum means, so long as the people working on it are geniuses of imagination. This Dream has nothing more than strips of translucent material hanging from the flies, and large transparent tethered balloons moving undistractingly around the upper part of the stage; and the most wonderful, subtle, exquisite and rarely obtrusive lighting, designed by the justly named Bruno Poet. It doesn’t suggest a forest, in fact is wholly abstract, but that only enhances its power. The conductor Stuart Stratford coaxes all the sylvan-sleep sounds required from the superlative orchestra, but his main interest is in expression rather than atmosphere, and he conjures a near-Bergian intensity from his players, which is surely right (though the composer himself didn’t, and perhaps didn’t want that). He establishes immediately that the quartet of lovers is in serious trouble, that this is as near to being a midsummer night’s nightmare as a delightful diversion. Martin Duncan the director is fully complicit: the tiresome pair, Helena in particular, is presented in as sympathetic a light as can be; and the forces that propel their often ridiculous behaviour are never lacking in sinister intent. Puck, especially (I saw Tom Walker in Manchester, I think), is just the servant his master needs, or deserves. And Oberon, whom one can only look at briefly because his armour is so eye-bruising, has in James Laing the countertenor voice one dreads to hear, yet in this work it is precisely and nastily right.

With all this semi-supernatural unsavouriness, the rustics are what I never envisaged their being: a welcome chunk of decency and guilelessness. Played as straight as they can be, they not only amuse, they are also moving (as well as touching). The strange quality of creepy sophistication manifested everywhere else in the work is ‘placed’ by them, and Britten turns out, to my plodding consciousness, to have made another assault on his eternal obsession about the relationship of innocence and experience.

And talking of creepy sophistication, how much more of those qualities could you find in a single opera than in Thomas Adès’s Powder Her Face? Produced at the Linbury by the Royal Opera, it boasts a set which might have sent Noël Coward into fatal shivers of agony and ecstasy; a fanned-out flight of chic stairs, with gigantic cosmetic instruments and the Duchess of Argyll reposing in the centre of a man-sized powder puff. Joan Rodgers acted the part exactly as she acted Poulenc’s La voix humaine two years ago, animatedly and with 100 per cent verbal unintelligibility. Where Poulenc can, in his piece, be harrowing and insightful (though that production wasn’t), Adès here seems heartless and bent only on the all-too-famous climax, here rendered puzzling because in response to Rodgers’s frenetic fellation (surely there is someone involved in the work who knows that the secret is relaxation) a nude male, full-frontal but evidently not all that affected by her efforts, reared up between the Duchess and the Waiter and then slid from view. The music chattered on cleverly, but bored me — and not in a sophisticated way.

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