CFA Stages Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Of all the adaptations of William Shakespeare’s classic comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, few are as celebrated as Benjamin Britten’s opera of the same title. It’s a magical, mystical, otherworldly feast comprising scenes that come and go with the swiftness and grace of the fairies that populate them. Tonight through Sunday, the College of Fine Arts Opera Institute, School of Music, and School of Theatre are staging the Britten opera at the Boston University Theatre.
In addition to Britten’s adaptation, which premiered in 1960 and features a romantic, often ethereal score, the Shakespeare comedy has inspired ballets and several film versions, from a 1935 Hollywood classic with Mickey Rooney as Puck to an all-star 1999 retelling transported from Athens to Tuscany, a Disney “nightmare” version, and Woody Allen’s lighthearted A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy. The story, which is giddy, often raucous fun in any form, interweaves the adventures of four young lovers, a roaming comedy troupe, a royal couple, and their interactions in an enchanted fairy kingdom.
With 19 roles and the lead roles double-cast, the Britten opera is the first production in many years to showcase the talent of all the Opera Institute students. It is also a showcase for CFA’s two countertenors, Bryan Pollock (CFA’17) and Wee Kiat Chia (CFA’18), who alternate singing the lead role of Oberon, king of the fairies. And it incorporates a children’s chorus, Brookline-based Voices Boston, as well as acting major Elizabeth Valenti (CFA’18), who portrays the ubiquitous, mischievous Puck in the lone speaking role. The opera is being directed by noted stage director Tara Faircloth, whose productions are known for their color, whimsy, and movement.
As conductor William Lumpkin explains, Britten’s libretto, cowritten with Peter Pears, eliminated the Shakespeare comedy’s first act, and the entwined love stories play out with three different groups—the royal lovers, the buffoonish rustics, and the ethereal fairies, each accompanied by boldly different, signature instrumentation. Each group is heralded, for example, by harps, trombones, or woodwinds, says Lumpkin, a CFA associate professor and Opera Institute music director. Shakespeare aficionados will see and hear the usual suspects darting in and out of the woods, from Peaseblossom to Lysander to Bottom, but except for Puck, the groups share no scenes, and whatever confusion ensues only enhances the adaptation’s quirky charm and entertainment value.
The Opera 101 calls Britten’s adaptation “an appealing opera in part because of how flexible it is. On the simplest level it is an evening of sheer enchantment, a traditional fairy tale with plenty of comedy. On another it is a psychological treasure trove, purity, madness, and cruelty crashing against each other to riveting effect. For the music buff it is also filled with musical homage and satire, from Baroque through Schoenberg,” the inventor of 12-tone music, whom Britten greatly admired.
“It’s really fun,” says Alexandra Rodrick (CFA’16), who plays Hermia. “Every role is important and everybody gets a good amount of stage time. The groups exist in separate worlds, and we get to see everything fresh, coming in and out of the woods at different times. It’s more of an ensemble show.”
“Each group has its own sound world and for the fairies it’s countertenor and coloratura soprano,” says Maya Kherani (CFA’17), one of the two Tytanias, the fairy queen. For the rustics, on the other hand, Britten wrote “goofball music,” Lumpkin says. Joseph Hubbard (CFA’17), who sings that goofball music as Bottom, says Britten’s work is a reminder of how much opera can do and how magical it can be.
The Britten opera marks Houston-based Faircloth’s BU debut. Her work has been seen in both major and regional opera houses around the nation. Opera News hailed her Le nozze di Figaro in Atlanta as “creating an unstoppable momentum…so fresh that it had the ability to bridge yet another gap, entertaining the amateur and the opera aficionado alike.”
Faircloth says she is stunned and inspired by the CFA student and recent alumni design team, who brought her colorful vision to life. These include scenic designer Ghazal Hassani Zorgabad (CFA’16), costume designer Chelsea Kerl (CFA’14), and lighting designers Kelly Martin (CFA’16) and Brittney Page (CFA’16).
“There will be oohs and aaahs,” Faircloth promises.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs tonight, Thursday, April 14, Friday, April 15, and Saturday, April 16, at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, April 17, at 2 p.m., at the Boston University Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston. Tickets are $20 for the general public, $15 for BU alumni, WGBH members, Huntington Theatre Company subscribers, and senior citizens, $5 for students with ID. Members of the BU community can get two free tickets with BU ID at the door on the day of performance. Purchase tickets here or call 617-933-8600. Take an MBTA Green Line trolley to Hynes Auditorium or Symphony, or the Orange Line to Mass. Ave.