Sunday, May 22, 2011


Benjamin Britten's opera at the ENO

A lonely man returns to his old school, deserted but for the ghosts, meets his younger self, bitterly remembering being supplanted as teacher's pet by a younger boy.
Of course, it's Britten's Dream.

Christopher Alden's haunting production sometimes sits uneasily on the score, more so on the libretto. We need to read it as a palimpsest, perhaps, or like Hermia, see it “with parted eye”, taking in the two stories at once.

Innocence corrupted is a recurring theme in Britten; here it's as if Death In Venice and The Turn of the Screw have leached into this pastoral. It's the Dream meets the History Boys, with hints of “If...” for good measure.

However, when you're actually experiencing this potent re-working, the school is a strangely compelling image, mesmerising us into accepting this idiosyncratic reading.
The set, based on a real school yard, dominates, and the unnatural lighting supports the oneiric atmosphere.

Theseus, for this is the returning stranger, was Paul Whelan, awkward, haunted, looking not unlike Jennings as Britten in Habit of Art. Puck, his younger self, was a moving Jamie Manton, often close to tears, and bitter in his resentment right to the closing speech. Dominic Williams was the Changeling Boy, given much to do here, conducting the music, taking over some of Puck's tasks.
The outstanding performance of this production, though, was Iestyn Davies as jealous Oberon, the charismatic, creepy teacher. Beautifully sung, with real character and a strong presence wherever on the complex set he was placed. Both he and his music teacher Tytania [the wonderful Anna Christy] were very young – could almost have been mistaken for students. Also youthful, naturally, were the lovers, here imagined as passionate Sixth Formers – Demetrius a muddied oaf in the rugger team. Their trysts and quarrels were hard to take in this setting, though, with no wood in which to wander. But musically very impressive, especially Allan Clayton's Lysander.
The Rude Mechanicals, the only colour in this, grim, grey boyhood world, were, I think, the janitorial staff, with the “slow of study” Snug a PE teacher. Even seasoned performers like Simon Butteriss [Starveling, robbed of the plum drag role of Thisby] and Willard White [Bottom, with no ass-head of his own] struggled to find any fun in this world, shorn as it was of jollity, the magic largely replaced by misery. Where the lovers meet behind the bins, the “weed I showed thee once” is the herb of choice for sixties students, and the flowery bed is a cold, grim corner of the schoolyard.

But the effect of this “fruitless vision” was dramatic, and did often suit the score, given a superb reading by the orchestra under Leo Hussain. The schoolboys, sombre spectres filing slowly across, almost always behind the huge windows, were used effectively – the ending of Act Two was movingly powerful. The conjugation of Amo, Amas, Amat was tellingly replaced on the blackboard by Tytania's warning: Out of this wood do not desire to go ...

Opinions so far have been divided - “hateful fantasies” or “jewels from the deep”. I wonder, would this approach work for the Shakespeare play ? Would it make sense to anyone who knew nothing of the composer ? Would it do anything for a child new to the story ? And if not, does it matter ?

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