A World of Childhood Innocence Intersects With a Grown-Up Reality

10.13.13
James Conlon
The New York Times

By Zachary Woolfe

'Midsummer Night's Dream' Returns to Met for Britten's 100th

It’s no surprise that Britten’s 100th birthday, arriving on Nov. 22, has been overshadowed all year by the two titans of opera, Verdi and Wagner, who turned 200. Even the Metropolitan Opera, which has long been kind to the British master, unveiled gleaming new productions of Verdi’s “Rigoletto” and Wagner’s “Parsifal” but is celebrating Britten with just a revival: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which opened on Friday evening. 

“Just a revival,” yes, but an exciting one. Superbly cast and beautifully conducted by James Conlon, this “Midsummer” makes a persuasive case for a work both exquisite and exhausting.

Instead of starting as Shakespeare does, at Theseus’s court, the opera begins in the magic wood. It is a nocturne evoked by slowly sliding, gauzy chords and the eerily pure scales of a fairy-chorus of boy sopranos.

This world of childhood innocence, and its interaction with an adult realm capable both of protecting and violating it, fascinated Britten, and the choruses are sublime throughout. “And all shall be well,” the fairies intone in a haunting lullaby at the end of Act II, and they cap the opera with “Now, until the break of day,” a calmly lilting benediction.

If between the heights of inspiration — music as sensitive, moving and unsettling as any Britten composed — the opera sometimes lags, Mr. Conlon, a champion of Britten who as music director of the Los Angeles Opera spearheaded this year’s Britten 100/LA celebrations, gave the score clarity and weight. The Met’s orchestra responded with energy more febrile and angular than plush or smooth.

The young cast was as good as any the Met has fielded for Britten in years, led by Iestyn Davies, calmly commanding as Oberon, king of the fairies. The punishing role mostly lacks the impressive high notes that are a countertenor’s stock in trade. But Mr. Davies is fearsomely eloquent and velvety in the middle and low parts of his voice, and his hushed aria “I know a bank” seemed as natural as speaking, his presence ominously dandyish.

The soprano Kathleen Kim sang Tytania, the fairy queen, with fresh, sensuous lyricism. The quartet of misbegotten human lovers was wonderful: the tenor Joseph Kaiser as Lysander, the baritone Michael Todd Simpson a resonant Demetrius, the soprano Erin Wall bright-voiced as Helena and, most memorably, Elizabeth DeShong as Hermia, her mezzo-soprano creamy and her acting memorable in slapstick and heartache.

The mechanicals, too, were excellent, particularly the rich-toned, thoughtful bass Matthew Rose as Bottom and the agile tenor Barry Banks as Flute. Riley Costello brought a provocatively bitter edge to Puck, which Britten wrote for a nonsinging acrobat.

Tim Albery’s 1996 production, with sets and costumes — much of both in chartreuse — by Antony McDonald, will be a nostalgia trip for anyone who was a regular Met-goer in the 1990s, when blocky, brightly colored surrealism reigned. It is a clever, effective show whose most memorable moments — from Tytania slashing her way through the moon to a ghostly, chalk-drawn outline of a house — are as striking and disquieting as Britten’s music.