Opera: A midsummer night's frost

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THERE'S one thing about Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream on which most people seem to agree. It's a summer piece. The score is full of lush, dreamy sounds, the magic that of short, semi-twilit nights. A few bars, and imagination is already amid warm banks where the wild thyme blows.

But Robert James Carson's Aldeburgh production, with the Britten-Pears School Opera company, takes a different view. The stage is mostly sombre greys and blacks; foliage is bare and skeletal. The effect on the music is striking. Harp, harpsichord and celeste now sound sharp and cold - the aural equivalent of hoar frost and sudden thin drafts. With reduced strings (a necessity in the tiny Jubilee Hall pit), the beautiful opening to Act III loses a lot of its lushness. It's still beautiful, but the air is definitely chilly. And why not? Oberon has got his way - possession of the "changeling boy" - by means of a cruel trick on his wife, Tytania. And in this production we have now seen how coldly cruel he can be, silkily congratulating his familiar, Puck, one minute, then giving him the magical equivalent of a savage beating the next. William Towers' Oberon looks, and sounds the part - all sinister, frosty elegance. Dawn Hartley's Puck (a virtuoso performance throughout) registers the pain all too believably.

But while the background may be more of A Winter's Tale than a Summer's Dream, there's still plenty of comedy. There was something strangely touching about Timothy Mirfin's love-scene as Bottom with Heather Buck's Tytaniain Act II. The hand-on breast gag may be something of a cliche in comic opera, but Mirfin executed it superbly, like a long, slow overarm bowl.

Would Britten have approved? Probably not, but then, by most accounts, Britten could be remarkably prudish. He is said to have been displeased on one occasion by the sight of a couple of married friends holding hands in public. His art, on the other hand, has a life of its own - a life, which, on occasion, seems to have worried even its composer. The producer is to be congratulated for allowing the work of art to guide him, rather than stories about Britten. After all, if Britten wanted nothing but clean fun, fit for maiden aunts to see and hear, why did he choose Shakespeare? Certainly this was a great evening. Credit to conductor Michael Rosewall, and to Britten-Pears School Orchestra for their part in it, and to the mostly girl fairies - there's something else Britten wouldn't have liked. Perhaps an all-boy troupe would have had a purer sound, but in every other respect that's one Aldeburgh tradition that's well worth challenging.