A Midsummer Night's Dream, Coliseum London

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The Independent Culture

Aside from Verdi's Shakespearian trilogy, Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream must, by now, have established itself as the most frequently staged operatic setting of Shakespeare ever written. It is not so difficult to see why. In cutting the text to operatic length, Britten and Peter Pears actually managed to clarify the complexities of the plot, while the vocal casting offers a gamut of opportunities for any team of up-and-coming young singers.

Aside from Verdi's Shakespearian trilogy, Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream must, by now, have established itself as the most frequently staged operatic setting of Shakespeare ever written. It is not so difficult to see why. In cutting the text to operatic length, Britten and Peter Pears actually managed to clarify the complexities of the plot, while the vocal casting offers a gamut of opportunities for any team of up-and-coming young singers.

And if the score itself is, arguably, less consistently rich and inspired than the greatest of the Britten canon, it is certainly among the most proficient. By obsessively working a handful of striking melodic and textural ideas, Britten ensures that the audience leaves at the end, not only knowing where every note in the score has come from but haunted for days after by its glittering, crepuscular ambiance.

The result is a resilient theatrical vehicle that can survive more or less any perversity of production. And in Robert Carsen's 1995 staging for English National Opera, currently revived at the London Coliseum by Emmanuelle Bastet, it has to survive quite a few. Michael Levine's postmodern designs are just beginning to look dated, with a first act played out on giant pillows, its second on lines of double beds like a hospital ward and its costumes ranging from c1800 to the present day.

Puck is presented as a twitching, balding greybeard. And while Emil Wolk is a remarkable performer, Britten's preference for a boy with just-breaking voice was important to the sexual scheme of the plot as he saw it. The four contending lovers, meanwhile, are put through such excesses of slapstick that it is a wonder they can sing with any clarity or line at all - though Victoria Simmonds's elegant Hermia, Alfred Boe's passionate Lysander, Leigh Melrose's darkly sonorous Demetrius, and Linda Richardson's bright Helena all manage to somehow.

It is also perverse to shove Oberon far upstage for his key number, "I know a bank where the wild thyme blows". Yet here, as throughout, that exquisite counter-tenor Robin Blaze dominates the stage, immaculate of diction and mesmeric of visage - nicely matched by the poised sophistication of Sarah Tynan's Tytania. The "rude mechanicals" prove a boisterously characterised bunch, if not always quite spot-on in the patches of close harmony Britten gave them. (Only Iain Paterson's underpowered, middle-aged Theseus disappoints.)

Still, under the baton of Paul Daniel, the high points of Britten's score - the dazzling Act II sequence where Puck leads the distrait lovers "up and down"; the final fairy benison sweetly chanted by the Trinity Boys Choir of Croydon - come over as magically as ever.

To 8 July (020-7632 8300)

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