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The lobby of the intimate A.J. Fletcher Recital Hall on the lovely campus of East Carolina University was full of anxious students wanting to get into the last of three performances of the opera A Midsummer Night's Dream (1960) by Benjamin Britten (1913-76). John Kramar, director of ECU School of Music Opera Theater, welcoming the audience from the stage, requested the silencing of all electronic devices and quipped "who knew a production of Britten's opera would sell out all performances?"
Many regard Britten as the greatest British artist at setting the English language to music since his idol Henry Purcell (ca.1659-95). According to Peter Evans, in The Music of Benjamin Britten, choosing a Shakespeare text awakened in Britten "the literary conscience of the song-writer as well as the opportunism of the musical-dramatist." The occasion for creating the opera was the reopening of the tiny Jubilee Hall at the 1960 Aldeburgh Festival. For some time, the composer had hoped to advance opera in English by making operas far less expensive, in part by using a smaller chamber orchestra accompaniment, which could be staged in smaller towns. "Britten and Peter Pears labored to produce a text which, though necessarily much abridged, is of almost formidable authenticity." The play's opening Athenian Court scenes are eliminated, and the return to the court in the finale is considerably compressed. Many of the great solo and duo speeches in the fairy-haunted woods are retained but greatly telescoped because singing lines takes so much more time than delivering spoken text.
Oberon and Tytania, king and queen of the Fairies, are disputing over the possession of "a little changeling boy," the orphan of "a votress" of Tytania's order. Their respective fairy forces are much disturbed by the royal's argument. Two pairs of mortal lovers become lost in the forest. True lovers Hermia and Lysander are fleeing a forced marriage in Athens. Hermia's unwanted fiancée Demetrius is in hot pursuit. His rejected former lover and friend of Hermia, the hopeless, shameless Helena, is following Demetrius. Oberon has Puck give a love potion to the sleeping Tytania which will cause her to love what she sees upon awaking. Five rustics, among them Bottom the weaver, who craves all characters' roles, choose the forest to rehearse a play. Much confusion and comedy result from Puck's mistaken application of the love potion on Lysander instead of Demetrius, not to mention Tytania's besotted love for the jackass-headed Bottom.
Fletcher Hall's small pit area, just the space from below the stage to the closed off first row, was packed with a skilled chamber orchestra led most effectively by J. Christopher Buddo. Britten's score is extraordinary, and the musicians made the most of it. The comedic episodes supported by bassoon, trombone, and percussion were a hoot. The strings beautifully evoked the mystery of woods at night with a suggestion of the deep breathing of a sleeper.
The effective spare set, consisting of stylized trees before a painted forest backdrop with two evocative sculptures, was designed by Matthew Scully. A stronger suggestion or contrast to the woods for the court would have been nice. Costumes, designed by Jeff Phipps, were generally successful. Oberon's costume stood out with its combination of regal gold and a suggestion of forest mimicry. The costumes for the rustics' play were very effective. The lion's mask was charming, as was the lamp which presented "Moon." Its reflections were pleasingly suggested by Michael LaRoche's lighting.
Fletcher Hall is a fine setting for chamber music so it provided an ideal space for talented young voices to sing without the strain of having to fill a large auditorium. The absence of a recessed orchestra pit did lead to some occasional covering of vocal lines. The cast was an unusually even and balanced team of singers. There was no lack of power in the warm-toned counter-tenor of Bryan Pollock as Oberon or soprano Erin O'Leary as Tytania, who had some spectacular coloratura runs. Athletic actor Oliver Smith brought plenty of pluck to the role of Puck. The true lovers, mezzo-soprano Tiffany Springle as Hermia and tenor Maurio Hines as Lysander, had even, lovely voices. Their delivery of the set piece "I swear to thee" was gorgeous. Baritone Nathan Walker had a fine resonant voice and clear diction in the role of Demetrius. As Helena, soprano Elizabeth Thompson's smooth voice made a nice contrast to Springle's. Their "cat fight" over Helena's calling Hermia a "puppet" was aptly comical. The roles of the Royal Athenians are much reduced in the opera. Bass-baritone Eric Loftin's voice was clear but light in the role of Theseus, Duke of Athens. Age will add weight and darkness. Contralto Cera Finney was fine as Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons.
ECU fielded an outstanding team as the five Rustics, and Kramar's staging of their play-within-the play was outstanding in every way. Bass-baritone Ronald Holmes brought stage presence in spades to the role of Bottom the weaver as the heroic lover Pyramus. His even, warm toned voice was paired with clear diction. He made a mighty fine Ass too! Tenor Joshua Allen pulled out all the stops for a terrific portrayal of Flute, a bellow mender as the Pyramus' timid lover, Thisbe. Bass Steven Thomason had wonderful comic timing as Snug, a joiner and a slow learner of lines. The hilarious chase of the giddy Thisbe by Thomason's Lion had the audience in stitches and surpassed any staging I have seen. There was never a doubt that baritone Wesley McDaniel, as Starveling the tailor, was "Moon!" Tenor Todd Barnhill as Snout, a tinker, made a superb Wall. A hole allowed the audience to delight in the play of expressions on his face during the exchange between the lovers. Time will add weight to bass-baritone Brenton O'Hara's voice. He was a properly exasperated director in his role as Peter Quince, a carpenter.
Britten's Decca recording of the opera and large opera houses such as a Barcelona field members of large boys choirs in the roles of the fairies. ECU's stage could not have fitted them nor do most conservatories have them on hand! Kramar's production made a decent compromise, using four sopranos as the named fairies of Tytania who service Bottom. Amanda Hunter was Cobweb, Brooke Haney was Mustardseed, Emily Tucker was Moth, and Brittany Collins was Peaseblossom.