A Midsummer Night's Dream, Royal College of Music, London
Over the past decade, London's Royal College of Music and Royal Academy of Music have collaborated on opera productions. Now, they have gone their separate ways, and the Royal College has launched the Benjamin Britten International Opera School, "a major new centre set to shape the next generation of world-class opera singers." This production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream celebrates the school's opening and is staged by John Copley, the guest producer.
In appointing Copley, the college has hardly gone for cutting-edge opera; as the Royal Opera's resident director from 1971 to 1988, Copley established a reputation for restraint, elegance and conservatism. But he is also known for working well with young singers, and his Britten credentials include taking the role of the apprentice in Peter Grimes at Covent Garden in 1950, and working on the premiere of A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1960.
Young singers need a safe pair of hands, which no doubt counts for more than a challenging production. Here, Peter Ruthven Hall's set is little more than flats resembling huge lace doilies, which rise and fall to create space and atmosphere effectively enough. What goes on within that set, though, amounts to a miniature anthology of standardised Dream ideas: Oberon as glitteringly overdressed Elizabethan fop, Puck as hyperactive brat, the lovers as Edwardians, hopelessly adrift in matters of love.
Nothing too psychological, then, or too sexy, even though the opera carries an erotic charge that young singers might enjoy getting to grips with. Given the production's narrow conceptual framework, though, the generally promising (and genuinely international) young cast copes well.
Predictably, it's the rustics who come off best; but if you don't get a laugh from them, something is seriously wrong. Among their number, Jonathan Lemalu stands out. His is a Bottom larger than life (indeed, he looks like a prop forward) but with a refined sense of comedy. His large voice is rich and smoothly produced, and, within a rather buffoonish view of the role, he finds a proper refinement of feeling.
None of the other singers quite fills the stage in the same way, but Serena Kay (Hermia) and, especially, Miriam Lakhasi (Tytania) show promise. The voices will grow, but they already have a beguiling lustre. In the pit, the school's director of opera, Michael Rosewell, paces the performance well, with percussion and harpsichord producing the requisite other-worldliness.
Copley's production offers a functional platform for young singers. The resulting performances suggest that we will soon get the opportunity to see them in something more stimulating. And that, after all, is what the new opera school is for.
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