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.


sfmike said...

I amended the post slightly so I wasn't repeating certain cliches in two paragraphs in a row, but since I don't know what I'm doing with Blogger, I managed to come up with a whole new post and lost the one comment that had been posted form "puck." So here it is:

puck said...

you are a fiend! i did a "oh, midsummer night's dream!" dance, but then... i read your post, and now i'm not excited anymore. :D thank you for keeping me safe from it, though - as the play-within-a-play has always been my least favorite part.

My response to Puck is that "A Midsummer Night's Dream" can be stolen by any of the three Jostling Social Realities of the play/opera, either the Fairies, The Rude Mechanicals doing their play-within-a-play, or The Noble Lovers. It depends on the actors/singers/director/fate. Which is what makes this my absolutely favorite Shakespeare comedy. It's different every time you see it.

Anonymous said...

You might check the score. Oberon is listed as either counter-tenor or contralto. A woman often performs Oberon, and in school productions, where it is helpful to offer performance opportunities to those enrolled, women also frequently perform the Fairies.

sfmike said...

Dear anonymous: I completely understand the reasoning behind the casting, and the contralto was very good as Oberon. However, it just sounded wrong to me.

And in the case of the Fairies, it wasn't the gender that bothered me so much as the timbre of adult voices in childrens' roles. It sounded really wrong.

Anonymous said...

"Really sounded wrong..."

Well,fortunately that is completely subjective, but then that is the point of a blog such as this.

sfmike said...

Dear anonymous: Listening to music is by definition subjective. There's no right or wrong opinion, which is part of what makes musical taste so fascinating. It really is different for everyone.

Having said that, I got to know Britten's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in the early 1990s when I was fortunate enough to be a "rustic" supernumerary in the Pyramus-and-Thisby scene in the last act. The Oberon was the great local countertenor Brian Asawa, Tytania was the British soprano Sylvia McNair, and the dozen fairies were San Francisco Boys Chorus members. The conductor was John Mauceri and the direction of a very traditional production was by John Copley (who appeared as the boy supernumerary in "Peter Grimes" when it premiered in Covent Garden). The production was just about perfect.

I've also been listening to Britten's own great recording of the entire score for the last twenty years, with most of the original cast. So when I say it Sounds Wrong To Me, that's where it's coming from.

Anonymous said...

Well said regarding the subjective nature of music and of your long and interesting background with the work.

So, was the performance experience that the Conservatory provided to those 15 or so young students who were cast as Fairies invalid?

Seems to me that providing a maximum number of opportunities to sing in productions with an orchestra is one of the the functions of such productions, rather than replicating SFO productions or original cast recordings.

sfmike said...

Dear anonymous: You ask, "So, was the performance experience that the Conservatory provided to those 15 or so young students who were cast as Fairies invalid?"

Good question. I'm not sure how the word "invalid" crept in here, but let me have a go at it. These sopranos are never going to be singing the Britten fairies "professionally" in their future so that's one reason they should probably be performing in something else. If there are too many female singers vis a vis males, the school might consider the Nun Operas, "Suor Angelica" or "Dialogues of the Carmelites," both of which I love, or Handel, where I tend to prefer women singing the castrati parts rather than countertenors because it usually Sounds Better to my ears.

Also, the stage movement and direction of the chorus in "Midsummer" was frankly awful. I saw and wrote about a "Pajama Game" production at Diablo Valley Junior College last summer where the staging was ten times more sophisticated, and the players consequently more accomplished even though none of them were out of their teens. So just being onstage is not necessarily a "valid" experience.

Finally, once you have hired a hall, sent out flyers, paid for publicity, and invited a paying audience to attend (even at admittedly bargain prices), then it stops being about just the tender young performers. It's about the audience, too, and if I'd known that the children were being replaced with adults, I probably wouldn't have attended and certainly wouldn't have dragged along a half dozen friends.

Junk Thief said...

As a long-time writing "student" of George Birimisa's I got a chuckle about his reactions since I've heard him say that about a host of many other performances. I stumbled onto your blog and was pleased to find it. Hope you take a moment to visit mine.