Performers: David Daniels, Ofelia Sala, Gordon Gietz, William Dazeley, Deanne Meek, Brigitte Hahn, Peter Rose / Symphony Orchestra of the Gran Teatre del Liceu/ Henry Bicket, musical director
Studio: Virgin Classics (EMI) DVD 3392029-3
Video: 4:3 full screen, color
Audio: PCM stereo/Dolby Digital 5.0 /DTS 5.0
It’s a comedy, it’s lighthearted, it has great staging, and it’s well-sung. No wonder. In the late fifties bold concepts seized the composer when he was writing this operatic adaptation from Shakespeare. Together with his librettist Peter Pears, he forged them into shape, almost—but not quite– with the élan of Verdi rendering Falstaff. Why not have the lead character, King Oberon, cast as a countertenor? That would certainly set it apart from most twentieth century operas. Ably sung by David Daniels, this role is dramatically cast: entertaining and enchanting. His aria “I know a bank where the wild thyme grows” is exquisitely colored with sinister edges. And Daniels sings it with such affecting sensitivity.
Why not have the fairies cast as boy sopranos? (In this production, they’re French boy sopranos, singing in phonetic English.) And who cares if Puck speaks rather than sings? Just make sure he’s an astounding acrobat. The troupe of laborers—Bottom, Peter Quince, Shallow, and the rest—are appropriately silly, yet they sing Britten’s music with spirit, complete with boffo effects like croaky wrong notes. The hullabaloo around Bottom’s “translation” into an ass just keeps getting better, particularly with baritone Peter Rose nuzzling up to Ofelia Sala’s sexy Tytania. When the troupe finally gets around to performing their “Pyramus and Thisby” play for the duke and his retinue, it turns into an expert parody of 19th century opera. Thisby’s aria sounds like Lucia di Lammermoor on a warped 33 rpm LP. Bear in mind that this is not among Britten’s best operas. Next to Peter Grimes or Turn of the Screw, it’s in the second drawer down. At times the writing is thin, such as the duets between the mixed-up lovers in the forest. But Britten’s ensemble writing is lively and clever and the mêlées are hilarious, and the staging—most of the opera takes place on a gigantic bed—is deliciously inventive. At one point, there’s a parody of Shostakovich’s famous marching theme from Symphony No. 7. It’s definitely worth seeing a few times.
– Peter Bates