Opera Australia’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Opera Australia

QPAC Lyric Theatre

1st – 9th June 2012

Reviewed by Michelle Bull

Enticed by the faint smell of incense creeping under the doors of the Lyric theatre, you could be forgiven for thinking you were about to see a touring Bollywood production and not an opera by Opera Australia. But as the next few hours unfolded, there was no mistaking this production for anything else but Baz Luhrmann’s take on Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, set in 1923 India.

For those of you unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s enchanting tale, it goes something like this…The Queen of the Fairies, Tytania, is a tad smitten with her charge, a young Indian boy, so much so that King Oberon gets a little upset and consequently the two have a bit of a spat. King Oberon sends his servant Puck to fetch a potion that with one-drop causes love at first sight, Oberon intends to use this on Tytania. Meanwhile there’s a love quadrangle going on with mortals Helena, Hermia, Lysander and Demetrius, and the impish Oberon decides to test out his potion on them, causing quite the kafuffle. Also in the forest that night (it’s a busy wood this one), are the rustics (workmen), who are there to rehearse a play intended for the wedding of the Duke of Athens Theseus and his Queen Hippolyta. They also get muddled up with the potion and so it all gets quite messy. There are three weddings, a dramatic death scene and then day breaks and all is well…phew! Quite a lot of narrative to digest in three acts, but the wonders of a decadent set and some glorious singing defiantly aid digestion.

Dressed in vibrant colour and speckled with glimmers of firelight and flowers the stage (Catherine Martin, Bill Marron) is the picture of a magical fairy woodland. I was completely immersed even before the opera had begun. Incense, and a soundscape of birds and forest sounds were the perfect finishing touches to a set that housed a water pool, suspended bridges draped in vines, flowers and the superb sounds of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra!

One by one we were introduced to the characters, from Fairy Kings and Queens, love struck mortals and dancing nymphs and faries. The costuming and makeup of all was impeccable, and reminiscent of Hindu Gods and Goddesses, tying into the choreography that throughout was also inspired by bollywood-esque gesture and lines (John O’Connell).

Overall, the entire cast was strong both in voice and characterisation. Tobias Cole as King Oberon was utterly hypnotic. His wonderfully balanced and resonant counter-tenor, added to the statuesque elegance he brought to the role. I was entranced and unnerved all at once; the perfect Fairy King.

Portraying the same unnerving smile as complement was Tyler Coppin as the impish Puck. Bringing a childlike physicality and sense of play to the role he delivered with strong comic timing and a wonderful melodic shaping to his treatment of the text.

His Queen, Lorena Gore as Fairy Queen Tytania was also an absolute joy to watch. With a ringing brightness and light agility to her pretty coloratura she encapsulated all a Fairy Queen should, gliding across the stage with a flirty cheekiness that made her instantly loveable.

The Lovers – Hermia, Helena, Lysander and Demetrius – all gave solid performances both individually and as an ensemble. James Egglestone as Lysander was sweet and sung with a wonderful sense of poise and connectedness despite the rigorous physical demands of the role. Luke Gabbedy as Demetrius also commanded a strong presence onstage both physically and vocally, managing effortlessly a balance of strength and tenderness to his large lyric baritone.

I particularly enjoyed Jade Ede as Helena. Awkwardly philosophical and hopelessly love struck, her beautiful soprano cascaded effortlessly through from top to bottom, providing a magnificent contrast to the rough and ready physicality of her character.

Sian Pendry as Hermia provided a chocolaty legitimate mezzo sound to her role. Her feisty attack on Helena was hilarious and showed Pendry’s wonderful dedication to character in its intensity; the duet between the two, a comic and musical highlight that showed the skill of the performers as they leapt and lurched across the stage while maintaining control of the vocal line.

The six rustics were next to win our hearts and raised a cheer each time they entered. Like a cross between bumbling workman and Dad’s Army, they brought a wonderful comic element to the show. Each with their own character within the group provided a solid ensemble. Bottom, (a weaver) played by Conal Coad, was hilarious and with an authoritative bass baritone who exploited the comic moments for all they were worth. His love scenes (as an Ass) with Tytania were very amusing and left not much to the imagination. I heard a few tut tuts from the audience at the suggestiveness of some of these scenes but it was all in good fun!

Graeme MacFarlene played Flute, a bellows mender (and Thisbe in the Rustics play). Showing adaptability and great characterisation within his voice, his strong tenor was matched by his skill as a wonderful comic actor.

Quince (Richard Anderson), Snug (Richard Alexander), Stout (John Longmuir) and Starveling (Andrew Moran) were each individually very funny in their roles. The Rustics overall ensemble sound was beautifully balanced and musical, and they quick became audience favorites.

The final act gave us the wonderfully strong Bass voice of Jud Arthur as Theseus and contralto Tania Ferris as Hippolyta. Despite occupying a small amount of stage time, I really enjoyed both their performances; Arthur’s Bass sound filled the entire Lyric theatre effortlessly, and Ferris’s contralto was controlled and rich and oozed regality.

The cast are supported throughout by an enchanting chorus of fairies, spirits and dancing nymphs, mischievous and wide eyed with a beautiful ensemble sound. The Act 3 finale Now Until the Break of Day was a highlight, showcasing the ethereal sound of the children’s chorus.

There is so much to love about this current production by Opera Australia, that I feel I need a review twice as long to include it all. There is a glamour to this production that is utterly charming. The fairy tale does not ignore Britten’s darker underlying themes lurking in the shadows and skillfully lures its audience in through an intelligent approach to the intricacies of the score and staging.

This creates a magical fairytale with just the right amount of grit to give it an unnerving other worldly air. The cast are superb and with a set that transports you to a fairy dreamland from the minute you enter the space, the three acts whizz by so fast that you wish you could keep dreaming.


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