Opera: A Midsummer Night's Dream Metropolitan Opera, New York

Benjamin Britten's operas have been a significant presence in New York's autumn opera season, but not in ways the composer was likely to recognise. First came the surreal Mark Lamos production of The Turn of the Screw - a major box-office success at the New York City Opera - that was so fixated on the characters' interior madness it never showed you the exterior reality they departed from. Now, British director Tim Albery - in his US directing debut - has brought A Midsummer Night's Dream back to New York after an absence of more than three decades with an updated, highly abstracted production that prompted both cheers and a heavy walkout rate last Monday at the Metropolitan Opera. However stylish with its stage full of fairies in modified ballet tutus and black dragon-fly wings, this example of the new generation of Britten productions seems premature here, particularly with The Dream, whose basic character is hardly known in America and is not likely to be amid so much production eccentricity.

Designer Antony McDonald delivered a forest without trees. That worked fine in the Royal Shakespeare Company's recent production of the original play, thanks to a unity of concept. McDonald vacillated between the luminously coloured, wavy shaped masses of David Hockney and some of the more stylish interior designs of Philippe Starck. The depths of the forest, for example, were conveyed by a succession of open doorways painted bright chartreuse. Even the crescent moon ridden by Queen Tytania (Sylvia McNair) never conveyed a sense of being out of doors. The rustics looked like modern businessmen in tacky suits while the lovers, Lysander and Demetrius (Kurt Streit and Rodney Gilfry), were identical in shoulder-length blond hair and long white robes.

Albery's touches were often puzzling as well. Puck (Nick Stahl) was a Nineties slacker, determinedly blank and sluggish. There was little sense of eroticism, which is the driving force behind the play and something the opera needs more of, considering that Britten gave his least-interesting music to the lovers and took away their dramatic urgency by cutting Shakespeare's Act 1. Though the entire package - production and opera - was engaging for its high level of industry, it seemed arch, chilly and heartless.

One might even question if a score with subtle, serpentine glissandos and delicate pairings of instruments (such as the clarinet and harp that convey Tytania's bliss) belongs in a theatre as large as the Met, considering how conductor David Atherton failed to project the musical fine points that can bring the most sparingly scored moments to life. It was hard to believe this is the great opera many say it is.

Among the singers, the robust countertenor Jochen Kowalski had none of the projection problems that plague many Oberons, while Gilfry and Peter Rose (Bottom), both in their Met debuts, were also vivid vocal presences. But the only singer who really projected a character was the spirited, witty Sylvia McNair as a comically overdressed, slightly clumsy Tytania. Musically meticulous with near-flawless diction, she added to her normally lustrous voice a slight nasal whine to remind us that Tytania - like most royalty - is a bit spoilt.

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