Magazine article The Spectator

Great Britten

Magazine article The Spectator

Great Britten

Article excerpt

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Opera North, Manchester

Powder Her Face

Royal Opera, Linbury

At certain times all conditions seem to conspire to favour some opera composers, and to make others seem virtually impossible to produce satisfying accounts of. At present everything is going Britten's way; every time I see a production of almost any opera by him my opinion both of it and of him rises; while I can hardly remember when I was last really satisfied by a performance of a work by Wagner or Verdi. A lot of that is due, no doubt, to the comparatively undemanding nature of Britten's vocal writing, and to the consequent lack of need for stars. Despite the popularity of some of his major operas, few famous singers have chosen to perform in any of them, Jon Vickers being the only artist with 'super-stellar' status who has regularly sung in Peter Grimes. Certainly other great artists, such as Heather Harper and Simon Keenlyside, have made Britten a central part of their repertoire, but they are or were team-singers, which is just what he needs.

Britten's lack of interest in vocal glamour or in writing roles which few performers would have the stamina to undertake was partly a canny move by a consummately practical professional -- but then Wagner and Verdi were that too, and look what they ended up demanding. Britten, much more than those two greater masters, wrote with a particular group of performers in mind, his whole oeuvre has the ethos of something composed within a powerfully conditioning social framework, and what is remarkable is that many of his operas have turned out to be viable outside that framework and ethos.

One, it has seemed to me, that failed that test is A Midsummer Night's Dream, but thanks to the miraculous production of Opera North I have happily revised my opinion of that too. Seen in the least auspicious setting -- what else could you call the Lowry, Salford Quays, the centre of an urban jungle masquerading as a well-planned landscape garden? -- it demonstrated various things.

One was that the maximum effect can be gained with the minimum means, so long as the people working on it are geniuses of imagination. This Dream has nothing more than strips of translucent material hanging from the flies, and large transparent tethered balloons moving undistractingly around the upper part of the stage; and the most wonderful, subtle, exquisite and rarely obtrusive lighting, designed by the justly named Bruno Poet. It doesn't suggest a forest, in fact is wholly abstract, but that only enhances its power. The conductor Stuart Stratford coaxes all the sylvan-sleep sounds required from the superlative orchestra, but his main interest is in expression rather than atmosphere, and he conjures a near-Bergian intensity from his players, which is surely right (though the composer himself didn't, and perhaps didn't want that). …

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