SCENE GRABBER Andrew Shore’s Bottom threatens to steal the show.
After last season's The Turn of the Screw, Boston Lyric Opera has returned to Benjamin Britten with A Midsummer Night's Dream, an adaptation of Shakespeare (at the Shubert Theatre through May 10). It takes courage to do any 20th-century opera in this town, given the conservative bent of the audience, but A Midsummer Night's Dream ought to be foolproof, what with its enchanting score, glittering sound world, irresistible story of comically mismatched lovers, and rollicking farcical scenes of inept rustics attempting to put on a tragedy (perhaps Shakespeare's self-parody of Romeo and Juliet).
But the new BLO production is hit-and-miss. Its strengths are a youthfully attractive cast, skillful orchestral playing, and (some) imaginative scenic designs. But every virtue has a negative counterpart. Take John Conklin's sets. His program note tells us that the magical forest in which the lovers get lost and the rustics rehearse their play should be "as constantly visually shifting as the characters." But though the lovers shift their affections and Bottom the weaver is transmuted into an ass, they actually don't change character. There are shifts from deliberately clumsy painted trees to a stage cluttered with the word TREE (much the wittiest idea — maybe the whole production should have stuck to this conceit), with dangling chairs and a bed that changes size (another potentially good idea, though why is Tytania being photographed on it?). Yet few of these ideas have dramatic point.
Stage director Tazewell Thompson's Don Giovanni two years ago underplayed Mozart's mystery for farce, but he seems at a loss what tone to take here. In Britten's great third-act quartet of awakening lovers ("And I have found Demetrius like a jewel./Mine own and not mine own"), their dazed confusion — reflected in Britten's heartstopping key modulations — is also eloquently reflected in their uneasy sarabande as they circle the stage. But much of Thompson's blocking has that same wandering quality, only unpointed. How could he not do something naughty with Shakespeare's off-color pun about Thisbe kissing the Wall's hole and stones? But either he resists the joke or he doesn't get it. And so we don't either.
A bigger problem is the lethargic pace set by BLO's new music director, David Angus. His conducting has no pulse. Slow sections drag, and busier sections have little sense of direction. On Britten's own recording, the music is always alive, bracing, tingling. Even when it's slow, it moves. At the Shubert, it was a struggle to stay awake.
The singers had almost uniformly good voices, but in the Shubert's unhelpful acoustics, their English diction was a problem. If you couldn't make out a line and you looked up at the supertitles, the words would already be gone, and then you'd miss the next line.
Soprano Susanna Phillips (Donna Anna in BLO's Don Giovanni), who sings at the Met, is a feisty, unloved, then too-much-loved Helena, mezzo-soprano Heather Johnson (Zerlina in Don Giovanni) a touching Hermia. Tenor Chad A. Johnson and baritone Matthew Worth are their suave-voiced lovers. British baritone Andrew Shore, the scene-grabbing Bottom, down to his uncontrollable leg stamping and hee-haws, heads an endearing bunch of uncouth rustics (T. Steven Smith, Liam Moran, Andrew Garland, Matthew DiBattista, Neal Ferreira). But how come they all speak with the same proper British accent as the higher-born characters?