Enchanted evenings

Times Literary Supplement, July 2

Sergei Prokofiev
Grange Park

Benjamin Britten
Garsington Manor

Love potion: use sparingly and with caution. There are several operas for which this motto could serve. But whether tragic, like Tristan, or comic, like the works under review, there is always a sense that the potion itself – or simple magic spell, in the case of the Prokofiev – is dispensable. Opera has a way of bombarding the senses, as well as a reputation for implausibility, so that we tend simply to take whatever is thrown at us in much the same spirit as the characters. Disbelief is suspended so very high above the proscenium arch, that the concept of magic has little meaning.

Another, less fortunate effect of this is that while comic operas are plentiful, laughter among the audience is not. Laughter requires strong roots in normality, and as a result tears against the illusion of seamlessness and inevitability that arises when dramatic structure weds itself to musical time. The extent of Benjamin Britten’s achievement in making a funny opera out of A Midsummer Night’s Dream should be weighed accordingly.

Although the adaptation, which was as much Peter Pears’s work as Britten’s, is uniquely sensitive among Shakespearean operas, differences from the original play are marked. The four interweaving storylines remain, but the relations between them are changed. Theseus and Hippolyta retain only a minimal presence, while the tradesmen – or “rustics”, as Britten liked to call them – carry greater weight. This is particularly the case with Bottom. In contrast to the other characters who remain faithful, by and large, to the idioms and diction which Britten alots them, Bottom and, to a lesser extent, Flute are given free rein to parody styles from Purcell to Verdi and even, I fancy, Britten himself.

Like Britten, Prokofiev adapted his own libretto, this time from a comedy by the Venetian Carlo Gozzi. Unlike Britten, the resulting absurdist fantasy, driven at breakneck speed by Prokofiev’s score, bears little comparison in terms of mode and character with the original light-footed stock comedy. It depends on the production, of course. In Grange Park’s new staging, directed and designed by David Fielding, the bombardment of music and badly pronounced French has an ample visual equivalent, with a battery of symbols and references including a chorus of medics in Sigmund Freud masks and giant juice cartons in place of the eponymous oranges, each branded “Innocent”. The references are often cinematic: Truffaldino dresses as Indiana Jones for his adventure with the Prince in a blue police-box Tardis. Likewise, the “ridicules” take their costume and movement from Woody Allen’s butler-robot in Sleeper.

Though musically tight – with the English Chamber Orchestra energetically directed by Leo Hussain – none of the singers dominates proceedings. The Grange stage is a difficult one on which to project, and it’s hard for voices to be heard about the orchestra. Nonetheless, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts is in winning form as the hypochondriac prince turned chivalrous adventurer. And I particularly enjoyed the production’s play on levels of control and puppetry, with the ineffectual sorcerer Tschelio at one end, the audience at the other.

If there is a serious message in Prokofiev’s preposterous fairytale, it is a familiar one: love, however ridiculous its apparent object, is the real agent of freedom. One might point to something similar in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: in Quince and Bottom’s rendition of “Pyramus and Thisbe”, for instance – though this, as Theseus observes, “needs no excuse”. And overall, in Daniel Slater’s excellent production for Garsington, to designs by Francis O’Connor, the mixing of mortal and immortal spheres is more subtly handled than at Grange Park. The set has been tossed from an attic window (aptly, given that this is the final production in Garsington Manor’s courtyard before the company moves next year); the fairies, clad in military apparel drawn from a dressing-up-box, move among a jetsam of patchwork quilts, truckle beds and dusty Persian rugs, a lair of forgotten things which the mortals enter via a wardrobe.

Ultimately, however, the source of the magic lies not with Oberon and Titania, but in the combination of ingenuity and serendipity which Garsington both uniquely requires and offers. Gravity – whose unseen hand closes the wardrobe doors, or allows the characters to enter at speed, and in various stages of dishevelment, down a curving slide – was the prime mover among the special effects, while moments such as the passing aeroplane aiding Richard Durden’s aged Puck in his mission to “girdle the earth”, or the angry blackbird rebuking Shakespeare’s lark, voiced their own ungainsayable charm. James Laing’s soft counter-tenor and George von Bergen’s bright tenor were just right for Oberon and Lysander. Neal Davies and Pascal Charbonneau were vocally assured as well as devotedly funny as Bottom and Flute, and Steuart Bedford, who worked with Britten on the first recording of the opera, conducted lovingly.

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