Arts: Theatre: It's warm up north

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The Independent Culture
IN THIS unusually bleak midwinter, Opera North seeks to raise our spirits by evoking midsummer, in Britten's version of Shakespeare. And, by and large, I think they succeed. The new production, by the French team of Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, has charm, imagination, and moments of sheer magic. People left the theatre warmer in heart as well as in body.

The opera, following the play, concerns the interaction of three worlds - the world of the forest, the courtly world of the courting couples, and the workaday world of the "rude mechanicals" preparing their homespun entertainment for Duke Theseus's wedding. Each world is clearly delineated in the music, and equally clearly marked out in this production. The lovers arrive in the forest in evening dress having come from a posh dinner party, Demetrius and Helena in an open sports car. The proles, by contrast, can manage only one bicycle between the six of them. The fairies are weird, monstrous beings with dinosaur tails - except for Puck, who we first see sleeping rough, his clothes seemingly bought from an Athenian jumble sale.

But where was the forest itself? The central feature of the set was one of those all-purpose white walls running diagonally across the stage. No one is asking for a return to imitation oak trees, but it does look as if contemporary designers have a real problem when it comes to representing the natural world on stage. Despite some imaginative lighting (Christophe Forey) more was needed than that blank wall.

Of the three worlds, Britten was at his best and most original in depicting that of the fairies and the forest - eerie, mysterious, and often rather sinister. And there were commanding performances from Christopher Josey as Oberon and Claron McFadden as Titania. She negotiated the part's fearsome coloratura with great skill and confidence. Words were often at a premium, though, while Josey, by contrast, projected his text with both power and clarity.

If the lovers made up a rather ill-defined, anonymous quartet, that is largely the fault of Britten's music, some of which ("I swear to thee") is embarrassingly feeble. But Nicholas Sears as Lysander and Mark Stone as Demetrius made the most of what they had.

Among the Athenian artisans, Jonathan Best as Bottom gave another excellent performance, comic but not without dignity. And one of the best moments in the performance came at the end of their play before the Duke, when their faces and their body language told us all we needed to know about their disappointment - disgust, even - at the rude and patronising way in which they had been laughed at by their audience of nobs.

After an uncertain start, Steven Sloane, the company's new music director, coaxed some vivid and characterful playing from the orchestra. Leiser and Caurier conjured up some wonderful touches to bring each of the three acts to an end. As Titania is lulled to sleep at the end of Act One, a giant tortoise ambles across the stage and two giraffes peer amiably over the wall. Butterflies flutter by and a goggle-eyed goldfish floats gently down. The finale, "Now until the break of day", is truly touching. All the cast, including the off-stage children's choir in their school uniforms, come forward to the footlights. Illusion is banished, the backcloth disappears and the bare stage wall is revealed. "If we shadows have offended" begins Puck; but there was really no danger of that.

`A Midsummer Night's Dream' at the Grand Theatre, Leeds, until 29 Jan, then touring