CLASSICAL MUSIC / Sweet Dream, sour looks

'DREADFUL, pure Kensington,' said W H Auden when he saw how Britten had adapted A Midsummer Night's Dream. Ever since, productions have struggled to find a sort of magic for the piece that accommodates both its prepubescent fairy chorus and its huskily hyperactive Puck, without subsiding into Peter Pan. When they've succeeded - as Peter Hall's Glyndebourne staging did - the opera has emerged as one of the most profoundly affecting, and lovable, in modern repertory: a supreme example of Britten's gift for exotic, sensual beauty strained through an ascetic, Anglican intelligence. But struggle it remains. The spectre of Kensington hovers so threateningly that directors (not to say designers) tend to turn to the comparative safety of brutal contemporary chic - as they do in the staging for the Covent Garden Festival at the Freemasons' Hall.

In some respects it's a triumph, sung by a superb cast who appear under the banner of British Youth Opera but are led by established singers like Judith Howarth (Tytania) and Christopher Robson. Robson has been an obvious Oberon-in- waiting for a long time, and he does it beautifully, even if the writing sometimes pitches him too low for good tone. Charles Johnston is a dashing Demetrius, there's a supremely stylish Lysander from Ian Bostridge (who strikes me as the most musical young British tenor to have surfaced in recent years), and the fairies (from New London Children's Choir) are excellent. Although the orchestra, under Jane Glover, has limitations - strong statements need better definition, cantabile lines should sing more graciously - there are enough moments of closeness to the nerve of the score to feel that Britten's genius has registered.

The problem is the way it looks, with Tytania in a Madonna bodice and fish-net stockings, and Oberon in a black singlet, pyjama trousers and Doc Marten boots - not so much the King of the Fairies as a leather queen from the Coleherne caught in mid-toilette. Some of the costumes are by Zandra Rhodes, some by Ruari Murchison, and they are uniformly vile. So is the set, which purports to be a massive bed, though it takes an effort of imagination to recognise it as such. And Jamie Hayes's

production only exposes the difficulties of presenting opera in the round. He doesn't do enough to focus attention on what matters, and makes things worse by adding extra business where it isn't needed. I understand the reason for having a streetwise, funky Puck, but why there should be three streetwise funky Pucks escapes me.

If the Dream is only a qualified triumph, others in the festival have been closer to absolute success - including a production of the 'church parable' Curlew River (Britten again) done with conventional austerity by the recently formed Music Theatre Ulster. It dragged a bit, and the ensemble singing / playing could have been more muscular and accurate. But there was some powerfully affecting solo-work, with a terrifically assertive Ferryman from a young baritone called Richard Whitehouse. It was fascinating to hear it on the night after the Dream, because these two scores, although technically four years apart and on opposite sides of a quantum leap in Britten's development that occurred around 1960, have a hidden relationship. Curlew River was in an advanced stage of planning when the idea for the Dream took over and kicked it, temporarily, into touch. So both were in Britten's mind at once. And there's a suprising degree of commonality between them: from instrumental effects that exploit a narrative divide between two worlds (human / spirit in the Dream, East / West in Curlew River), to drag roles for Peter Pears (who donned

a frock to play not only the Madwoman in Curlew River but also for Thisbe in the premiere of the Dream).

But the best thing I've seen in this year's festival is Handel's early opera Flavio, another Irish import, this time from Dublin's Opera Theatre Company. OTC is a small enterprise with a suddenly big reputation for touring good young singers in modest but striking productions - and Flavio fits the bill exactly. Despite no sets and minimal lighting, there was a brilliant vitality in James Conway's bare-bones staging. It took a judicious view of the hard-to-get Handelian balance between comedy and pathos. And it really worked the talents of a cast that was a joy throughout, from the Joyce Grenfell gaucheness of Rebecca dePont Davies's Flavio, to the crystalline loveliness of Deborah York's Emilia, and the colour- rich countertenor of Jonathan Peter Kenny's Guido.

Conducted by Seamus Crimmins, it moved with a brightness and energy that still left space for golden moments to linger. The only question it raised was how a shoestring company from a country with severely limited operatic resources could encompass work of such quality. But maybe a clear field and unchannelled talents are exactly what it takes for groups like OTC to thrive.

Humberside is a fairly clear field as far as music goes. But in the Middle Ages, the minster town of Beverley, near Hull, was an important gathering place for North Country musicians in the service of the Church. In a latterday attempt to revive that connection, the town now has an annual Early Music Festival. Last weekend it had Philip Pickett's New London Consort in a programme of 15th-century Spanish songs that demonstrated not only the technical marvel of Catherine Bott's soprano but the instinctive, almost animal, sense of ensemble that exists between her and the other NLC members. They've been together a long time now, over 10 years: and, in the nicest possible way, it shows. But the chief curiosity at Beverley was Walter Frye, there not in person (he died c. 1475) but in the voices of the Hilliard Ensemble, who have become his champions. Frye was a satellite of Dunstable, the presiding genius of English music in the first half of the 15th century. Like Dunstable, he illustrates the influence that English music had on continental Europe during the early Renaissance. Frye himself didn't travel, so far as we know. But his manuscripts did, and those that survive are almost all to be found in collections overseas: eloquent examples of what 15th- century Europe admiringly called the contenance angloise. The countenance of the Hilliard Ensemble is ripe and fruity, a healthy antidote to English Cathedral pallor, and whether or not it's a sound that Frye would recognise, it feels right. Now that period performance has been invaded by modesty and no one dares call anything 'authentic', 'feeling right' is about the strongest commendation it's acceptable to make. I make it unreservedly.

'A Midsummer Night's Dream' continues at Hampton Court (071-344 4444), 9 & 10 June.

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