Thursday, August 14, 2008

A Midsummer Night's Dream in Walnut Creek

The Festival Opera in Walnut Creek usually produces two operas every summer, and has been doing so since 2000 under the artistic direction of the Oakland East Bay Symphony's Michael Morgan.

The performances take place in the largest of three theaters in the very 1980s-looking Lesher Center for the Arts. Though the building went up in downtown Walnut Creek in 1990, inside the place looks and feels like a very late "Dynasty" episode.

I attended the final dress rehearsal of this year's adventurous choice in programming, Britten's 1960 version of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and it was a wonderful show in almost every respect but one. The reviews have been mostly rapturous, from Kosman in "The San Francisco Chronicle" (click here), Janos Gereben at "San Francisco Classical Voice" (click here), and Patrick Vaz at "Reverberate Hills" (click here) which as usual tends to be the most interesting as an actual essay. Also happily weighing in are Charlise at "Opera Tattler" (click here) and Jolene at "Saturday Matinee" (click here).

The production was set in some kind of abstract 1950s/1960s day-glo wonderland, which worked well enough, though it was all wrong for the music in Act 1. The eerie, rumbling strings that start the opera conjure a forest very different from Mendelssohn's take on the same play, for instance, where all is light and humor. This is a dark, scary forest filled with creatures natural and unnatural.

The music throughout is a wonder, with its three strongly delineated worlds of rustics, quarreling lovers, and fairyland. The first two worlds are filled with musical parody. The "rude mechanicals" rehearsing their impossibly bad "Pyramus and Thisbe" tragedy have music that makes fun of everything from Schoenberg's "sprechstimme" to Donizetti's mad scene from "Lucia di Lammermoor." (The undainty Joan Sutherland had just performed mad "Lucia" at Covent Garden in an historic performance, and the original "Dream" production lampooned it mercilessly.)

The four eloping lovers, who are thoroughly confused by all the narcotic love charms they are given by Puck, tend to sound more like 19th century operatic stick figures who can't seem to make it to the right key because everything is so dissonant. When they wake up in Act 3, restored to romantic harmony, and sing their quartet "Mine own and not mine own," it's so beautiful in contrast to what has come before that I tend to burst into tears every time.

The music for fairyland, however, is not parody but an evocation of a strange, sinister, beautiful world. In some ways, it reminds me of the three-soprano finale of Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier," except in Britten's case, the three sopranos are Oberon (male countertenor), Tytania (female lyric soprano), and a fairy chorus (boy sopranos).

Now I don't want to have to say this again. The fairy chorus should NOT be sung by post-pubescent girls/women as they were in this production and in an earlier mess put on by the San Francisco Conservatory at Fort Mason. Britten knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote this music. Its spare orchestration doesn't overwhelm childrens' voices and their light, distinctive sound blends perfectly with Oberon and Tytania's music.

The Conservatory at least had the excuse that there weren't any boy soprano students so adult girls were used instead, but the fine conductor Michael Morgan (above) should have known better, since there are plenty of good boys' and girls' choruses in the Bay Area, and there is an expiration date for being able to sing this music the way it was written.

Beyond that considerable pet peeve, I liked just about everything else. The rude mechanicals managed to steal the show as usual, and the lovers were all wonderful, with a special shout-out to Stacey Cornell's beautifully sung Helena.

Kurt Krikorian as a flying-through-the-air Puck was not only athletically sexy but his diction was great. I liked Ani Maldjian as Tytania, and William Sauerland as Oberon was made up to look a bit like Ziggy Stardust, which I found amusing. His voice was beautiful, but he needs to find a stronger director. (Acting blase for three hours isn't a performance). The orchestra, which I'm sure is improving over the course of the run, was already sending chills down the spine by the dress rehearsal. You've got two more chances to check the production out, this Friday evening and a Sunday matinee.


jolene said...

Ooh, I had no idea the original score was written for a chorus of boys. That would have been perfect, and I'm a bit disappointed it wasn't staged that way.

For the first act, I thought Oberon was sung by a woman dressed as a disco Rod Stewart. He had a lovely smoky quality to his voice that I really enjoyed.

I think you've mentioned before that you really like Britten's "Peter Grimes"? I would definitely like to see that - the Met HD live DVD (directed by a favorite Broadway director of mine, John Doyle) is being released in September.

Civic Center said...

Dear Jolene: I was terribly disappointed in the lack of a boys' chorus too, or even a mixed boys and girls chorus. The main thing is that they should be sung by musically gifted, prepubescent children rather than teenage or adult sopranos. The chorus fairies in Walnut Creek sang well enough, but it sounded completely wrong, as if they were Broadway babes trying to sell a tune rather than children weaving ditties and lullabies around Oberon and Tytania in a magical forest, which is what Britten wrote.

As for "Peter Grimes," I haven't heard particularly good things about Doyle's production ("the Advent Calendar version of Grimes," as someone put it) but maybe it works on television. I think the opera is going to be presented in San Francisco pretty soon, so do make sure to see it live. The opera is remarkable, particularly its adult chorus, which is almost the main character.

bingbongplop said...

All your blogs are well detailed. I've only heard friends talk about a midsummer night's dream. Where you saw it at sounds great.