Hawaii Opera Theatre’s production of Benjamin Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is as wonderful and magical as Shakespeare could have imagined when he created the play more than 400 years ago.
Britten and his partner, Peter Pears, adapted Shakespeare’s play into an opera in 1960, a scant year before Hawaii Opera Theatre staged its first opera. Although HOT and Britten’s “Midsummer” are almost the same age, this is their premiere.
Let’s hope Hawaii doesn’t have to wait another half-century to see this work again!
Even with its many characters, this plot needs no summary. It is convoluted enough that those who know the play will delight in its twists and turns, and those who don’t will have more fun watching it unfold live.
Suffice to say that the tale entangles three worlds — magical fairies (King Oberon, Queen Titania, mischief-maker Puck and a host of fairies); aristocratic lovers (Lysander and Hermia, Demetrius and Helena, Theseus and Hippolyta); and a troupe of tradesmen “rustics” (Quince, Bottom, Flute, Snug, Snout and Starveling, each of whom also plays a role in the play-within-a-play).
The image of entangled underbrush on the opening curtain gives fair warning of what’s to come, but the three worlds are carefully distinguished in every conceivable way — costumes, language, music, voices, setting, lighting, etc. – and the more you seek, the more you find.
Britten’s “Midsummer” is one of the most ensemble of operas, all of its many parts essential to the whole, and HOT presented a tightly-knit cast, each character offering something special.
Britten included as a lead role the fairy chorus, performed by the excellent Hawaii Youth Opera Chorus, directed by Nola Nahulu. The fairies arrived in fantastical costumes in a riot of color, with wigs and wings in all manner of styles, each carrying a single lit candle. Their sweet, natural voices were beautifully shaped and were a highlight each time they appeared.
Paul Mitri, from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, created a delightfully adolescent, gymnastic Puck, one of opera’s few nonsinging lead roles.
As the fairy Queen Titania (Britten’s adaptation spells it “Tytania”), soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird dominated the stage with her bright, clear voice, a perfect fit for her role. Despite the plot, Bird made Titania the ruling fairy.
Daniel Bubeck, as the fairy King Oberon, was a good match physically but had a sweet and light countertenor (the highest of today’s male voices) that disappeared in ensembles, making his character less powerful and menacing than he ought to be. That said, the countertenor is an unusual voice, and Bubeck’s is controlled and exceptionally beautiful.
The four aristocratic lovers were well matched, their solos very good and their ensembles excellent. Their quartet at the beginning of Act III (“And I have found…”) was especially memorable, their vocal lines rising ever higher, blooming into the day’s sunlight.
Each of the six rustics delivered his comic spotlight with aplomb. Nathan Stark (Bottom, Donkey and Pyramus) and Kyle Erdos-Knapp (Flute and the female Thisbe) were unforgettable — but all of them were endearing.
Perhaps the most striking feature of HOT’s production is its design, which focuses attention on the singers and Shakespeare’s words.
The set is a diamond-shaped stepped platform with a semicircle projection screen (cyclorama) behind a floor-to-ceiling transparent curtain, irregularly gathered so that its folds create an uneven pattern of vertical lines. Additions are few (lanterns, a hammock) and open-weave banners descend to become tree trunks, veils and spells that obscure-but-not-quite, so that characters from different worlds share the stage without seeing one another.
Scenes are created through a brilliant combination of video projections designed by Adam Larsen (who also designed last year’s “Siren Song”) and lighting designed by Peter Dean Beck.
Conductor William Lacey crafted a nicely paced performance with the necessary translucence for the score to shine. Singers were audible, phrasing was natural, and although there were some rough moments in the orchestra, there were also many stellar moments.
HOT’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is a richly imagined, beautifully staged production that is not only worth experiencing, but well worth a second visit.
by Ruth Bingham for The Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Feb. 14, 2016