Britten loved boys. He felt on their level and hankered after the school days he had lost by being despatched early to music college. Boys of pubescent age play a prominent part in much of his oeuvre but never, until now, has one of his operas been used to explore the issue of pederasty that still lingers over Britten’s reputation.
English National Opera’s Dream, directed by Christopher Alden and designed by Charles Edwards and Sue Willmington, is an adult dream about school days – a bad dream, littered with abuse, bullying and buggery. It would have shocked Britten, not just because he came from a buttoned-up generation, but also because it bears no relation to his well-documented memories of childhood.
So, is this just another attempt to point the finger at a homosexual who many believe had an unhealthy fondness for boys? No, it is a perfectly legitimate, and brilliantly executed, exploration of the psychological underbelly of an opera that has recognisably sinister motifs but is usually played as a benevolent fairy tale. In Alden’s scenario, the opera tells the story of a man (Theseus – Paul Whelan) who was sexually abused at school and, despite a superficially successful marriage (to Hippolyta – Catherine Young), still bears the scar. Oberon is the paedophile teacher, Tytania a submissive colleague and Puck the senior pupil who, having long ago fallen under teacher’s power, is now head of “procurement”.
Of course, it’s not “for real”. It’s just a dream, isn’t it? Alden keeps us guessing. The only weakness is the Mechanicals – the school’s ancillary staff who relieve the tension but seem tangential.
Iestyn Davies’s Oberon fell victim to a virus but bravely mimed the part with William Towers as his voluptuous vocal shadow. Anna Christy made a sparkling Tytania, Willard White a majestic Bottom. Benedict Nelson and Tamara Gura were the standout lovers. Leo Hussain and the orchestra spun a web of magic, making this one of the most intoxicating and disturbing ENO shows in recent memory.