A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hackney Empire, London

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The Independent Culture

Sparring spouses, fretful lovers, muddled trysts, addled mix-ups: sounds like The Marriage of Figaro. But no - English Touring Opera has come up with a remarkably neat pairing: the good news is that after stiffish, lacklustre Mozart, its new staging of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream is wonderful beyond words.

It's directed with a delicious eye for detail by ETO's frontman, James Conway; sparklingly designed by Joanna Parker (with Caroline Hughes); and even more fabulously conducted by Michael Rosewell, who seems to be presiding over totally different players - I'll bet they're not - from the exhausting Figaro band. Every whiskery frisson of sound - the bewitching start, the disarming interludes - tells. The woodwind - aptly for a fey play - is out of this world; the brass, from Puck's flaring trumpet to mumbling trombone for the mechanicals, is bumper-good.

Hike miles to see this. David Gooderson's puzzled, permanently lassoed Puck - a bit like casting Michael Winner as Ariel - whizzes around like an advert for sexagenarian Viagra. Casting himself (he's their staff director) was an inspiration. You'll laugh and laugh.

The mechanicals are adorable: not just Andrew Slater's Bottom, a Priapic corn-dolly lacing himself into Rebecca Bottone's Titania (stylishly supine, and more soaringly queenly than her rampant sexpot Titania for British Youth Opera), but Huw Rhys-Evans's delicious Flute, smooching through Nicholas Smith's Wall, or Richard Wiegold's stupefying Snug. Every artisans' bicker is a model of how directors should direct: planned, observant, apt, perfect. Watch out for the rope.

With most Dreams you expect a clodhopper somewhere. Not here. Aideen Malone creates a web of mystic half-lights; the costumes (mauves/ maroons/lilacs for lovers, courtly orange, yokels' browns, black for Oberon) are a triumph. Every half-move is finessed, with a function. Conway's blocks are a joy. The lovers' quartet bathes the show in aural bright contrasts: witness Elizabeth Atherton's forthright Helena (a potential not just Countess, but Governess), or Douglas Bowen's alluringly macho Demetrius (a Giovanni in the making).

The glaring problem was one of initial muzzy sound. Early scenes sound recessed: too treebound. Only when Hal Cazalet's Lysander blares into gleeful ditty does the sound, bolstered by frontstage antics, suddenly settle down.

After that the aural goodies never cease: solo violin and xylophone; cello then oboe generating virtually a lutesong; gossamer-delicate interludes; confidential pifflings of paired clarinets/bassoons; Puccini-Mussorgsky parody for the Pyramus play. A corker of a show from a tip-top team.

Touring to 2 June (www.englishtouringopera.org.uk)