It may seem odd to be performing Britten’s Shakespeare opera in midwinter, but after experiencing this joint production of Scottish Opera and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, you realise that the midsummer setting is incidental. The world conjured by music and words is that of the psyche – its way of playing tricks on our emotions, relationships and sense of reality. This inner world is immune to the seasons, because it is with us day and night, and can never be fully explained.
Olivia Fuchs’ deceptively simple staging, designed by Niki Turner with video by Jon Driscoll, was first mounted eight years ago for the Royal Opera’s Linbury Studio. It still looks fresh – partly because it scales up well in a bigger theatre, and partly because its benign veneer suits a young cast. Modern interpreters like to stress the opera’s murky underbelly of manipulation and abuse. Fuchs gives it a more light-hearted, though never superficial, quality. Forest and fairy world become a playground for the impulses of love, frailty and jealousy – as if the audience is having a mirror held up to itself, revealing how we humans make such fools of ourselves.
It’s the sort of show that invites the imagination: the set is nothing more than a dark stage, with a row of plush-red theatre seats along the front, a couple of box-like structures outlined in blue neon and a sequence of tantalising film sequences projected across the back. The acrobatic displays performed by Jami Reid-Quarrell’s Puck only add to the magic of the score. The momentum of the first two acts sags in the third: is this because Fuchs turns the Mechanicals’ play into a student jape, or because Britten’s inspiration flags when confronted by unambiguous characters? It could be either, or both.
Tom Verney’s Oberon and Louise Kemeny’s Tytania make a confident central pair. The pick of the lovers are Jessica Leary’s Helena and Jon Stainsby’s Demetrius. Andrew McTaggart’s Bottom has the best-developed voice and the strongest stage presence. The Orchestra of Scottish Opera, augmented by student players, responds vividly to Timothy Dean’s conducting, and the Britten centenary is off to a flying start.