Saturday, April 14, 2007
Britten's "A Midsummer Night's Dream"
The San Francisco Conservatory of Music is performing Benjamin Britten's 1960 opera version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at the Cowell Theatre in Fort Mason this weekend, and it's a very mixed bag of the good and bad.
The setting has been moved to a mythical Asian island, which does no harm at all to the music or the story, and if the set design, lighting and stage movement hadn't been so clunky, the concept could have been brilliant. Britten had just finished a long Asian tour in the late 1950s where he was bowled over by the gamelan orchestras he heard in Bali. On his return to England, he incorporated many of the Asian sounds into his own music, most notably in the full-length ballet "The Prince of The Pagodas" and the three "Church Parables (Curlew River, The Burning Fiery Furnace, and The Prodigal Son)."
The Asian sonorities also appear in the Fairy Music in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which is about as far away from Mendelsohn's version of the same tale as you can get. Britten's music for Oberon, Titania, and the Fairies is strange, spooky, and iridescently beautiful. It's written for three different types of soprano: a countertenor (male) for Oberon, a high, silvery soprano (female) for Titania, and boy sopranos for the Fairy Chorus. Disastrously, in this production, they used adult female sopranos for Oberon and the Fairies and just about wrecked their music entirely.
In fairness, Kali Wilson performing as Oberon and Madeline Cieslak performing as Titania were both wonderful singers, but the strange beauty of a pair of male and female soprano voices intertwining was lost.
Also lost was the magic of The Fairy Chorus, which was simply atrocious and it wasn't the student performers' fault. Instead of looking and sounding like magical, ethereal creatures, they looked like they had wandered onto the stage from a bad Maria Montez movie. Plus, the sound of their voices was completely wrong, heavy and insistent where it should be light and delicate. I understand the reason for the casting, since there are probably no 13-year-old boy students at the Conservatory of Music, but there is a great Boys' Chorus in town who I'm sure would have been happy to help out, and if you are supposedly a serious music conservatory, the first rule of thumb should be "Don't Fuck Up The Music!"
Even worse than their sound, terrible overacting and ugly costumes was their faux Balinese Dance Movement, credited to Assistant Director/Choroegrapher Heather Carolo. Note to Heather: There are plenty of great Asian dance troupes in the Bay Area who would love to have given you some pointers, but if you're not going to do stage movement right, then please just don't do it at all.
Also defacing the production was a tall, female Puck (above) which was written expressly for a teenage boy acrobat to speak/sing while tearing around the stage. Instead, Laura Pyper threw in a few tentative cartwheels and a badly amateur performance.
I had drug a number of friends with me to the Friday evening performance, including the playwright George Birimisa (above on the left), and he was ready to bolt after the first act. "I could do better stage movement as an 80-year-old cripple than this crap." I urged him to stay because "the evening gets better," I said with more hope than conviction.
And serendipitously, I turned out to be correct. The four lovers (Pedro Betancourt, Alvin Tan, Jessica Hatley, and Jenna Yokoyama) were all wonderful singers who would have been even better with a decent director. Their music is mock-heroic and discordant for most of the first two acts when everybody is in love with the wrong person, but their quartet as they wake at the beginning of Act Three singing "mine own but not mine own" had me in tears.
The real stars of the show turned out to be the Rude Mechanicals with an absolutely standout performance by Paul Murray as Bottom. He was funny, musical, and he even danced better than the silly Cobra Woman Fairy Chorus.
The ridiculous Pyramus and Thisby play-within-a-play they perform is one of my favorite moments in Shakespeare, and Britten's version, with its parodies of everybody from Donizetti to Schoenberg, is one of the greatest and definitely the funniest stretch of music he ever composed. The performance on Friday was good enough that my seatmate George Birimisa was laughing out loud and the audience went out on a high.
I also loved the student orchestra who were playing fiendishly difficult music where every instrument is exposed. They weren't perfect by any means, but their enthusiasm for the music was in evidence, and in sections they were just plain fabulous. I heard new things in the score that I had never encountered before. Thanks to them and their very good conductor, Andrew Mogrelia, who was the chief conductor at the San Francisco Ballet for a couple of years recently before a mysterious disappearance. The opera will be repeated Saturday evening at 7:30 and Sunday at 2:00 with alternating casts, and the tickets are only $20, which is an insane bargain, bad fairies notwithstanding.