There are conductors who, for some reason, get that most disheartening slur branded on their baton -- "workingman conductor". Or, as they like to say here, "routinier". Appropriately, the slur ends up being attached to the undeserving names of perfectly fine conductors. Because the same people who like to badmouth a masterpiece of elegance, grace and subtlety like L'Elisir d'Amore (everything they told you about L'Elisir -- or Don Pasquale for that matter -- is wrong, but this is the topic of a future post) like to slam perfectly fine, if definitely non-flashy, maestri.
Andrew Davis is one of those conductors -- more often than not your usual alleged connoisseur of opera who doesn't really get it will roll his (generally beady) eyes sighing some sort of dismissive remark about Sir Andrew. Who in fact, as he so often demonstrates whenever he steps on the podium, and as he showed last night at la Scala conducting A Midsummer Night 'sDream -- is a very gifted conductor. He has the gift of music -- he engages the listener. He's wary of the corny effects, understands deeply his scores, and some composers -- Britten, for example -- he simply gets it.
All due respect to a mostly excellent cast, last night's success is in large part Davis's work.
Anyway: as the curtain dropped on last night's Teatro alla Scala premiere of Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, it was obvious, even before the numerous curtain calls and tonsil-busting "bravi", that the night had been a rousing success for all involved (even Robert Carsen himself, the director, showed up, and this is a vintage production, like from the Bush years -- Bush the Father years). When the cast and chorus eventually disappeared backstage for good and all the applause in the audience stopped, a riotous, congratulatory roar exploded from backstage and echoed around the theater -- a little backstage impromptu party, the singers in their hidden, not-so-private victory lap.
Carsen's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream was seen for the first time at Scala last night, though it's ages old, already shown from Aix-en-Provence to Barcelona's Liceu spanning over two decades, and was released on DVD a few years ago (you can get the DVD here)
The libretto (written by Britten and bff Peter Pears) is indeed packed with love and lust. Carsen's production -- he's possibly our second-favorite living Canadian, after Alice Munro -- goes unexpectedly sexual without discretion. Throughout the course of the opera, we witness an explosive orgasm (Tytania from Bottom's prosthetic), a cat fight (between Helena and Hermia), and let's be frank...what more can be said about an opera that mentions the word "cock" or "love juice" in some form or another half-a-dozen times? Opera Chic wouldn't have been surprised to hear some "bukkake" interpolation in the libretto.
But then, Carsen somehow kept a detached, straightforward interpretation of the overt erotic themes (Opera Chic still recalls the hotness from his Semele and Traviata orgies and his Salome striptease -- he's a director who likes his gangbangs, and more power to him for that). And yes we'd be remiss to not mention Matthew Rose's 20" strap-on that would make Dirk Diggler blush [link NSFW], though you'll have to keep reading to hear about that!
As the curtain rises, the twilight, wooded forest is depicted as a bed filling the entire stage, covered in a satin, emerald green bedspread evocative of lush verdant foliage, to which the chorus of faeries traversed and pulled back the sheets, revealing Tytania, Queen of the Fairies. Here, soprano Rosemary Joshua wedged between two immense pillow water beds.
Shakespeare's pastoral play is turned by Carsen into something much less pastoral, and -- thankfully -- we have nothing ethereal (save the silhouette of the projected moon in the background, 'tho even that's a stretch)...no magic, no floating faeries or fairy dust, nothing diaphanous or dreamy. It's a cold, crystalline reading bereft of Elizabethan sparkle. And it works. There's a taut, sober mean-spiritedness to the production, where dark undertones and unmitigated cruelness are right below the surface regardless of the prancing of characters above, and Carsen gets to the heart of it
Costumes are given a punk twist...Tytania rocks a long, dark purple wig, while others have green-capped Ceasers. Think Doctor Seuss meets Tish & Snooky's Manic Panic. A very practiced theatrical bend from the well-prepared Carsen, where perfect blocking gives each of the many characters their own signature without ever getting too hammy. In an opera where the action isn't automatically excelled nor broken by arias, the acting was key, and Carsen succeeded.
Choreography by Matthew Bourne (of the infamous All-Male-Swan Lake) was facilitated by a gradated set that allowed the singers to tumble and roll from all angles, and everyone was exceedingly light on their toes.
Singing -- thankfully in a Scala season that has often been disappointing when it came to the voices -- worked on almost all counts. Puck/Robin Goodfellow is played by an older Emil Wolk, who was amazing in every gesture. Despite Wolk's middle-age, energy abounded in the aerialist, who clung to the curtain and rode into the rafters at the end of the opera. It all added to the disturbing psychological profile of the impish prankster who refuses to grow up, much to his advantage.
Oberon, King of the Faeries, was sung by David Daniels, vocally spot-on, but unfortunately lacking in charisma. Lysander (sung by tenor Gordon Gietz) and Hermia (sung by mezzo soprano Deanne Meek) were both stunning and shared great chemistry. The same can be said for Demetrius and Helena, sung respectively by David Adam Moore and Erin Wall. Both were solid, though Moore did a breathtaking flip downstage right before he fell to sleep.
The six rustics expressed a perfect chemistry and flow, Andrew Shore's Peter Quince commanding and secure. Christopher Gillett's Francis Flute was a standout. With the smallest voice of the rustics, he made up for it with a light-as-air presence and enduring charisma. Greame Danby's Snug affected a Marmite-thick Cockney accent, while Adrian Thompson's Tom Snout was wonderful.
Simon Butteriss's Robin Starveling, whose character is that of a tailor was turned into the caricature of a Lower East Side early 20th century Jewish stereotype. Very unfortunate -- dark suit, a black hat and peyot. Oy vey. Let's hope Carsen never gets his hands on Porgy and Bess.
In comes Matthew Rose's Nick Bottom, Puck's plaything & puppet, with a truly impressive performance. The clear star of the rustics, Rose has been perfecting the same role for a handful of years. As Rose made his magical transformation into the a$$, he rocked a full long-john pajama in beige, with donkey feet, paws, and a full donkey head. And then some. OC suspects that even those with the furthest seats in Galleria II could have seen the comically huge and loosely-hinged d1ldo hanging left, swinging down to his knee (that sadly disappears after he awakes ;__;). We were hoping Carsen would write in a nice gangbang (again, like we saw in Alcina & Semele), but no such party arose.
The last scene brings to climax Carsen's light hand at humor, and the play within a play -- Pyramus and Thisbe for the Duke & Queen's wedding -- is witty and delicate. Here we have a small sampling of Italian opera written into the score, which is accompanied by the first pristine, white expanse of the evening after the green beds are whisked into the rafters. Minimalism Carsen at his best. Daniel Okulitch's Theseus and Natascha Petrinsky's Hippolyta flowed perfectly together, and cut a dashing image as royalty.
Despite the skill of the massive roster of singers and Carsen's direction, Sir Andrew Davis's understanding of the score was the biggest standout of the evening. Davis used a meticulous reading, well-executed in its delicate nuance and balance. Glissandos especially were absolutely stunning and subtle. He appropriately dropped in a nightmarish, chilling, and psychologically-complex interpretation. Davis mirrored the exact underscores and currents that flow just beneath the surface of joviality of callousness.