Teddy bears are dismembered, lovers sprout leaves, and when Titania plays the recorder for Bottom, he responds in stupendously priapic fashion.
The new season at Berlin’s Komische Oper opened last weekend with a Midsummer Night’s Dream that is definitely not for children. From the outset, when Titania’s child fairies shuffle on dressed as little old men, it is clear that Latvian director Viestur Kairish is turning Shakespeare’s midsummer enchantment on its head, with a reverse ageing process inspired by The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
In continental European opera houses this year, Benjamin Britten’s 100th birthday has been sidelined by Verdi and Wagner’s anniversaries to the point of near invisibility. It is therefore a relief to see the Komische Oper not only place Britten centre-stage, but also present a production that so thoroughly reflects the composer’s recurring obsession with childhood innocence and its loss.
Ieva Jurjane’s design places the action in a strangely artificial cave space that recalls the plastic interior of a child’s toy castle, with costumes in a Tim Burton-esque 1960s style. The star-crossed lovers are petulant young hipsters striving unsuccessfully for adulthood; Oberon and Titania are Elvis-style fantasy figures; the Rude Mechanicals are grave-diggers. Kairish borrows liberally from the world of cinema – the lovers’ leaves are from The Odd Life of Timothy Green, and movie teddy bears are legion. It is all about the cycle of life, of course. The teddy bears end up in the gravediggers’ hole, and the third act opens with an interpolated winter scene in which the four lovers have temporarily become old. For the final scene, they regress to childhood, but the child elves remain eternally ancient.
By turns sinister and melancholic, this Midsummer Night’s Dream is meticulously conceived and beautifully executed but almost never funny. Though it seems odd to hear Shakespeare’s texts sung in German by a largely international cast who will doubtless have little opportunity to repeat the feat elsewhere, it is the Komische Oper’s brief to provide opera in the vernacular. Shakespeare has a strong German tradition; this is one small but worthy contribution to a fledgling Britten tradition for Germany.
Despite its reputation as a house that places theatrical values above the acquisition of star singers, the Komische Oper’s casts have ever fewer weak links than those of Berlin’s two better-funded opera companies. This production is no exception, with outstanding performances from all four young lovers – Tansel Akzeybek, Annelie Sophie Müller, Günter Papendell and Adela Zahira, as well as from Nicole Chevalier’s shimmering Titania and Stefan Sevenich’s delightfully earthy Bottom. David DQ Lee brings the right note of creepy seduction to the part of Oberon, though it sits a little too low for him.
The evening is also a showcase for the Komische Oper’s new Kapellmeisterin, Kristiina Poska. The young Estonian has taken the career leap easily in her stride, and conducts with fluid authority, a clear head, a fine sense of structure and a good feeling for her singers. She will go further.