A Midsummer Night's Dream, Coliseum, London
Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music, St John's, Smith Square, London
Shakespeare's romantic comedy becomes almost unrecognisable in this tale of seduction and rejection set in a boys' school
Sunday 22 May 2011
Rolling and sighing, the narcotic strings at the start of A Midsummer Night's Dream are heavy with sleep.
Almost 40 strong, the boys' choir clears the musky air like a breeze from an open window: "Over hill, over dale, thorough bush, thorough briar..." This is the carefree invitation to a place where spells will be cast, hearts broken and mended, lessons learnt. However, for the silent figure gazing up at the walls of the school in Chris-topher Alden's English National Opera production, it is a nightmare.
Few directors try to untangle the knot of idealised love, erotic impulses and grotesque cruelty towards boys in Britten's operas. From Peter Grimes to Death in Venice, the victims are rarely afforded our attention. Now Alden has added to their number. Seduced by Oberon, groomed by Tytania, and drugged on the charms and lullabies of the orchestra there are three in his staging: man, youth and boy. Under Leo Hussain, Britten's score has never sounded more beautiful. But so glacial is the pulse, so incidental the comedy of lovers and mechanicals, that it seems as though nothing matters but ritual seduction and rejection.
Instead of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Alden offers an expanded version of The Turn of the Screw, with Oberon (Iestyn Davies) recast as the Quintish headmaster of a 1970s school, and a catatonic Tytania (Anna Christy) as Miss Jessel. What magic there is is bad. On stage from the outset, Theseus (Paul Whelan) is a former favourite, now recoiling from intimacy with Hippolyta (Catherine Young) and mutely trying to comfort Puck (Jamie Manton). The sprite is a more recent cast-off, his voice broken into the coarse honk of adolescence, his face twisted in envy as his master pursues the Indian Boy.
Smoking is compulsory in this school, the music lesson a violent bacchanale. The stagecraft is stunning, the singing refined and expressive, the designs (Charles Edwards, Sue Wilmington and Adam Silverman) tight and effective. Yet even Sir Willard White's star turn as Bottom fails to make much impact. The (very) Rude Mechanicals barely register as individuals, while the four lovers are similarly diminished. Alden's depiction of the changing relationships between the abused and their abuser dominates everything. He has researched his subject carefully, drawing daring performances from Whelan, Manton and a notably charismatic Davies. But in bolting this crime to Britten's most blameless opera, Alden has framed the Fairy King for offences committed by Quint, Grimes, Claggart and Aschenbach.
This year's Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music criss-crossed the continent from the prosperous ports of the Hanseatic League to Venice. Along with a streak of modish exoticism in the big city music of Handel and Telemann, what emerged from the first few concerts was the exquisite craftsmanship of lesser known composers from the previous generation: Johann Adam Reincken, Dietrich Becker, Christian Ritter, Matthias Weckmann and Georg Böhm.
Gustav Leonhardt's recital, The German Touch, explored the commonalities between them and the audacious talent of the young Bach, whose Air and Variations in the Italian Manner (BWV989) was the earliest of several Italianate works played. There was barely a smudge from Leonhardt's octogenarian hands in Reincken's flamboyant Toccata in G. When he plays, it's not just the music that you hear, but a distinct sensibility.
Reincken reappeared in Mahan Esfahani's performance with The English Concert as the author of a fretful Partita for two violins, viola da gamba and harpsichord. It was an oddly dowdy number in a programme largely focused on the civic splendour of Hamburg, though no odder than Dietrich Becker's sombre Paduana. Telemann's cheerful Concerto Polonaise had pop and punch while Bach's Triple Concerto and a suite of dances from Handel's Almira sped by in a flurry of sensually extended trills from flautist Lisa Beznosiuk.
Philippe Herreweghe's reading of Bach's B-minor Mass with Collegium Vocale Gent was presented as the most intimate yet exalted tapestry of styles and sonorities. Herreweghe is more interested in the grandeur of ideas than the grandeur of sound. His trumpets played like oboes, the textures sheer and clear, the natural horn faultless. I've never seen violinists navigate minute intensifications of bowing with such unanimity, or a soprano soloist sound as content as Dorothee Mields. The choir was perfectly balanced in the four-, five-, six-, seven- and eight-part movements. Underpinning all this bliss was a bass-line with real character and edge.
'A Midsummer Night's Dream' (0871 911 0200) to 30 June
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