There’s a bit of critical dissension about Garsington Opera’s collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company on A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Getty estate at Wormsley (and going on to Stratford-upon-Avon and the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London). I found it completely enchanting (though my wife did not).
The first of several joint ventures for the Garsington company – next year they’re doing Haydn’s Creation with the Ballet Rambert – it seems to me to augur well. What we saw and heard is an abridged version of Shakespeare’s play with Mendelssohn’s overture, op.21 and his incidental music, op.61., played and (two all-female numbers) sung by the Garsington Opera Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Garsington’s artistic director, Douglas Boyd. Owen Horsley directed the nicely whittled-down play “under the creative guidance of Gregory Doran.” There were no sets, save a couple of platforms with sets of steps leading up to them, and few props except for a platform, a couple of cushions, a canvas deckchair, parasol and the odd chair; and the orchestra occupied most of the open stage.
The venue is a perfect setting anyway, with the Wormsley homage to the Garsington Manor Italianate garden to the audience’s right, and a little wooded land to its left. But the beautiful “temporary” auditorium brings its own problems for the actors. The singers who perform in this structure learn to accommodate to the difficulties of projecting their voices in this huge pace, which resembles a large open-air theatre; but a few of the RSC actors hadn’t yet got its measure at the second night’s performance we saw. And Mr Horsley seemed to use the big stage mostly by getting the actors to race around it. I didn’t much mind this, as it was done lightly and mostly with aplomb, but a smaller stage or more imagination is required for this production.
On the other hand, the actors are fine, with outstanding performances by Chris Lew Kum Hoi as a gorgeous, gracefully galumphing, baby-faced Flute (doubling as Mustardseed); Forbes Masson as a rudely agrestic Bottom; Hedydd Dylan showing comic talent as Helena – once she has woken; Simon Manyonda as a stick-thin and funny Demetrius; Oliver Johnstone, whose Puck improves as the evening goes on; David Rintoul doubling Theseus and Oberon; and Marty Cruikshank, who doubles Hippolyta and Titania, though her sexy, deep voice was not always projected successfully. Of course the best scene was the agreeably suggestive play of Pyramus and Thisbe, with more puns on “stones” than I’d ever before noticed.
Mendelssohn’s music is pure joy – written for a production of the play at Potsdam in 1842, joined with the 1826 overture, written when the prodigy composer was 17. This was a sort of capitulation, an acknowledgment that he wasn’t going to write an opera, but the music so enhances the play that you wonder why it’s ever performed without it (the answers being expense and the absence of a big enough orchestra pit in most theatres). Everyone knows the overture, the scherzo, the glorious nocturne and, of course, Wedding March, but there’s a good deal more to the score, including a weirdly prescient cod funeral march for Pyramus.