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Houston’s Britten Cycle Turns to Shakespeare


by Olin Chism 27 Jan 2009

The Houston Grand Opera’s six-year traversal of operas by Benjamin Britten began in 2008 with a gripping Billy Budd. It’s continuing with a work of a drastically different sort: A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This musical version of Shakespeare’s comedy continues through Feb. 6. Unlike Billy Budd, Sunday afternoon’s performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in […]

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The Houston Grand Opera’s six-year traversal of operas by Benjamin Britten began in 2008 with a gripping Billy Budd. It’s continuing with a work of a drastically different sort: A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This musical version of Shakespeare’s comedy continues through Feb. 6.

Unlike Billy Budd, Sunday afternoon’s performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Wortham Theater Center was a bit of a misfire. It’s hard to say why. The singing was excellent, as was the orchestral performance, the staging was OK, the sets and costumes were acceptable, but somehow it never all came together into an enchanting whole. And a Midsummer Night’s Dream without enchantment qualifies as a misfire.

Britten and his textual collaborator, Peter Pears, stayed about as close to Shakespeare as anyone could in transforming the play into an opera. The plot, the three sets of characters — upper-class humans, supernatural beings, working-class buffoons, even lines of text are retained. And Britten was careful to reflect the mood of each scene in his music.

The most vivid members of Sunday’s cast were the ones you would expect: Jon Michael Hill as Puck, Matthew Rose as Bottom, Laura Claycomb as Tytania, Iestyn Davies as Oberon. As a vocalist, Claycomb was particularly impressive, but the remaining soloists were able performers. Norman Reinhardt (Lysander), Marie Lenormand (Hermia), Liam Bonner (Demetrius) and Katie van Kooten (Helena) were prominent in the lengthy cast list.

Conducting was Patrick Summers, directing was Neil Armfield, set and costume designer was Dale Ferguson and lighting was by Damien Cooper. The “set” is really just large greenish, filmy panels, which are pretty effective in creating a sense of mystery. One Armfield miscue was the implication that Bottom and Tytania were having sex under one of the panels, while Puck peeked and giggled.

Of course, the afternoon’s biggest laughs were generated by the rustics’ play (to quote the Bard: “This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard”).

Houston’s Britten cycle will continue next season with The Turn of the Screw.

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