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Vol. LXIII, No. 25
 
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
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Music/Theater

(Photo by T. Charles Erickson)
PUCK DOES IT AGAIN: Puck (Dean Anthony) prepares to cast a magic spell on another star crossed lover. This time his victim is the sleeping Demetrius (Tyler Duncan).

Impressive Technology and Visual Effects in Britten’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream”

Nancy Plum

There is a great deal of pressure on opera companies these days to go very high tech. With opera being translated to both the big and small screens and all the multi-media possibilities, live opera is under the gun to mesmerize audiences with the same “wow” factor. Princeton Festival’s production of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which opened Saturday night at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre, is worth at least one return trip, not only to enjoy the fine singing, but also to play close attention to the technological details of set design which hypnotized the audience on opening night.

Benjamin Britten and collaborator/tenor Peter Pears adapted Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1960, following the story, but giving more prominence to the wood and fairy scenes. Key to the opera is the character of Puck, who opens and closes the opera and weaves his way through almost all the scenes. For Princeton Festival’s production, Director Steven LaCosse interpreted this role as a very physical one, staging several scenes in which a great deal of concentrated movement is required of the actor. Tenor Dean Anthony (known as “The Tumbling Tenor”) fully demonstrated that he is a triple threat — solidly singing and acting, as well as performing acrobatic stunts in a characterization which was a cross between Gollum and the Fawn character from Narnia. This role was as demanding as several other lead roles put together; Mr. Anthony had to maintain continuous energy through his scenes, including acting as background to other characters.

A “Midsummer Night’s Dream” will continue on Sunday June 28 at 3 p.m. at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre. The festival will present Maurice Durufle’s “Requiem” at the Princeton University Chapel on Saturday, June 27 at 8 p.m. For information about all Princeton Festival productions call
(609) 537-0071.

The driving force behind Puck is King Oberon, unusual in its composition for the countertenor voice, not a vocal style found much in the mid-20th century, but very suitable in Britten’s ethereal fairy world. Britten composed the role for English countertenor Alfred Deller, well-known in his time, but also known to be weaker in the upper register. As a result, this role does not demonstrate the impressive upper register capabilities that characterized countertenor roles in their heyday. Daniel Bubeck suitably carried the majestic presence of Oberon, especially when interacting with Puck in the scene in which he chastises Puck for his mistakes with all the star-crossed lovers. Mr. Bubeck’s voice was not overwhelmingly loud, but he maintained control of the role at all times. As his wife Tytania, soprano Jennifer Zetlan sang with fire and fury in a character borrowed from The Taming of the Shrew, but with the coloratura requirements of a 19th century Verdi soprano.

Two pairs of lovers completed the primary cast. Lysander and Hermia (played by Brian Stucki and Abigail Nims) created a solid couple, both visually and vocally, only having eyes for each other while showing good command of the music. Hermia’s “arranged” spouse, Demetrius (sung by baritone Tyler Duncan) was also relentlessly pursued by Helena, sung with resolute comic skill by soprano Caroline Worra. A member of the roster of the Metropolitan Opera, Ms. Worra was refreshing onstage, joining Ms. Nims for a supreme vocal cat fight over their man in Act II.

Shakespeare complicated the Midsummer Night’s Dream story by including a play-within-a-play. The six “working” men creating a secret play, often acting like six varieties of Stooges, all clearly enjoyed their comedic roles, aided by excellent singing and good physicality of acting. Nick Bottom in particular, sung by baritone Curtis Streetman, relished taking over the stage in his attempt to portray all the characters in the play, and Jeremy Milner, as the tallest actor among the six, made good use of his stature and voice to add comedy to the scenes. Play director Peter Quince, sung by Brian Banion, tried to hold his rag-tag group of thespians together, and guided the most comic scenes of the opera. Benjamin Britten’s music for Midsummer Night’s Dream is full of harmonies and palettes of orchestral and vocal sound. Britten borrowed a bit from Wagner in assigning specific instruments to characters — a trombone to represent Bottom’s depiction of an ass, a trumpet for Puck. The Princeton Festival Orchestra, conducted by Festival Artistic Director Richard Tang Yuk, was nearly flawless in keeping up with Britten’s complex score, and a number of fine instrumental solos came out, including from trumpeter Brian Kuszyk and English horn player Geoff Deemer. A children’s chorus with some good solo voices illuminated the fairy scenes, with fantastic costumes (designed by Marie Miller) which were no doubt as cool to the children as being in the opera itself.

The lighting made much of the overall effect of Midsummer Night’s Dream possible. Lighting designer Norman Coates, in conjunction with set designer Jayme Mellema, created panels that rose and lowered on the stage with trees, woodlands, and stars depicted in light and color. The visual effect alone was a show in itself.

Princeton Festival’s opera production is always the centerpiece of its season. Britten’s orchestral and vocal music is always a challenge, and the festival has put together something which was remarkably tight for an opening night, leading no doubt to a more polished production as the show goes on.

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