Midsummer Night’s Dream

Theatre Royal, Glasgow

It’s been two years in coming, but Dominic Hill’s new production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Scottish Opera – an early casualty of the 2020 Covid lockdown – has been well worth the wait. What’s more, it’s a stimulatingly fresh take on an opera known more usually for its woodland magic and picture book characters. Yet in this version, set in a devastated landscape in the wake of the Second World War, Hill offers a darker reality.

What remains is a world divided between the ruling court elite and its underlings, the so-called mechanicals; but nonetheless one in which they have to co-exist, and do so under the protective cloak of the opera’s fantasy dreamworld. Tom Piper’s designs play a key role in this, an illusive world in which beds take flight and the action barely stops for breath.

The darkness persists, though, in such symbolic quirks as the sinister puppet replacement for the mute Indian boy, and the stark greyness of the children’s chorus, crowded together like monochrome urchins in a scene by Hogarth. They act and sing with chilling definition.

Hill’s approach may seek to expand the notion of universality in the opera’s message, but it successfully avoids corrupting the integrity of the individual characters and their combined dynamic. 

Oberon, sung by counter tenor Lawrence Zazzo in this his Scottish Opera debut, is still a creepy specimen, but the emphasis is on his powers of persuasion, with the carelessly mischievous Puck (played with capricious energy by actor Michael Guest) to do his dirty work. Don’t be fooled by the visual greyness of his wife Tytania, as Catriona Hewitson’s keen soprano gives lustre and conviction to her queenly role. 

Even with Theseus, dressed for his final act entrance as a military dictator, an overriding air of benevolence is warmly maintained, expressed through Jonathan Lemalu’s rich-seamed bass. 

This is not a production in danger of suffocating under a weightily imposed message. Between them, the four young lovers and the irrepressible antics of the mechanicals preserve the opera’s infectious effervescence. Tenor Elgan Llÿr Thomas shines as the irrepressible Lysander, American mezzo soprano Lea Shaw as the head-strong Hermia, Jonathan McGovern cuts a suitably stoical Demetrius, and soprano Charlie Drummond the sadder, lovesick Helena.

When it comes to the mechanicals, this crazed gang of misfits really put on a show. As a team, their comic choreography had the opening night audience in stitches, not least David Shipley’s deftly hilarious, deliciously rude, portrayal as Bottom. 

Great credit to Hill, too, that he allows this production to completely serve and illuminate Britten’s music. The calibrated transition from stillness to action at the very start is a masterstroke, paralleling the orchestra’s slithering glissandi. Beyond that magical moment, conductor Stuart Stratford and his Scottish Opera Orchestra continue to express the kaleidoscopic subtleties, and occasional irreverent parodies, that are the opera’s engine room.

Ken Walton

Further performances at the Theatre Royal Glasgow (24 & 26 February) and Edinburgh Festival Theatre (1,3 & 5 March). Full booking information at www.scottishopera.org.uk