Conjuring Midsummer's magic

 

Opera Ireland has given Britten's operatic version of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' a makeover - with a thoroughly Irish twist, writes Eileen Battersby

OBERON IS none too pleased with his queen's refusal to bow to his wishes: "Ill met by moonlight, proud Tytania." Opera Ireland director David Bolger is looking equally stern as he tells his fairies that they don't appear to be concentrating.

"This is supposed to be fun, but it is also work." But it is fun; A Midsummer Night's Dream is Shakespeare's subversive masterpiece. Imagination runs riot and, when put to music - as it is in Benjamin Britten's exuberant operatic version, first performed in 1960 at the Aldeburgh Festival - there are no limits to the comic invention.

Outside, it is a nondescript, grey afternoon, yet inside a sports pavilion at Rathmines Cricket Club, rehearsal is underway. Puck is gracefully casting a spell, on cue, although most of the fairies are drifting off to sleep - a few remain disconcertingly alert.

Bolger ends his brief lecture, reassured that his fairies, children from the Independent Theatre Workshop, understand the level of discipline and concentration required for this Irish premiere of Britten's opera, "particularly when you are backstage in the theatre". All the while, dancer Horace Oliver paces like a cat; here is an inspired Puck. Oberon looks on.

Italian countertenor Flavio Oliver is gripping a large, gnarled stick and glowers effectively, aspiring towards equal measures of menace and magic. He is waiting for conductor Stewart Robertson to look up from the score. Having dominated Opera Ireland's outstanding 2004 production, Orfeo ed Euridice, he is a brilliant choice for Oberon - he has a naturally dramatic presence and his soaring countertenor injects the mood with the required surrealism.

Louise Walsh, Tytania, is holding an infant (a doll) in her arms. She takes her cue and her voice fills the pavilion. It is a terrific coloratura role for a soprano and Walsh adopts an elegant defiance. She is not about to be intimidated by the King of the Faeries. A Midsummer Night's Dream was one of Britten's favourite Shakespeare plays; it is his most attractive, imaginative opera, and one of his most popular. Britten and his life partner, tenor Peter Pears, worked together on the libretto, cutting Shakespeare's text by almost half so that the opera begins not at the court of the Duke of Athens but in Shakespeare's Act II, Scene I, in the forest.

"It's the music, it's so beautiful," says Bolger. "And so full of surprises! It has all the magic. It is a wonderful play; very funny and a bit mad, but also quite dark - I mean, it's about all the human emotions, particularly jealousy and revenge."

Puck is carrying a hurling stick - more about that in a moment - and balancing it against his shoulder like a rifle. Almost a year has passed since Bolger first began thinking about staging this opera. It is a very clever piece, bringing together as it does three groups of very different characters. Aside from the fairies, there are the lovers who innocently become involved in Oberon's feud with Tytania, and the extraordinarily modern comic sequence featuring the rustics and their daft play. Using a wall as a character is a remarkable comic device.

One of the many special elements inherent in A Midsummer Night's Dream is movement - and this is work in which movement acquires its own magic. Bolger is, by training, a dancer and choreographer, with a long involvement in the exciting CoisCéim Dance Theatre. He also appeared as Peaseblossom, one of Tytania's attendants, in the Gate Theatre production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

"Joe Dowling directed it, we [his Opera Ireland team] were only talking about it the other day. It had an incredible cast - Stephen Brennan was Oberon." The operatic version provides Bolger with tremendous potential for movement. He has cast Horace Oliver, a professional dancer, as Puck. "Having worked with Horace in London, I knew he would be perfect. I also liked the idea of a black Puck."

There is also the ambivalence of Puck's relationship with Oberon. Puck/Robin Goodfellow, as devoted servant and as malevolent sprite also suggests parallels with Prospero's somewhat more complex relationship with Caliban.

Malevolence as a word makes Bolger's eyes light up. "You know why we are setting this in Ireland?" These fairies aren't cute, because real fairies are tough. "They are tough and strong, and good at sport. We looked into the whole fairy thing and saw how important they are in Irish folklore. Monica [Frawley] did a lot of research and consulted Barbara Flynn in the folklore department at UCD. I began to see Puck and the Púca." Puck's hurley begins to make sense.

The presence of fairies, whether in the form of a lone hawthorn tree or a rath - a fairy fort - would make a farmer think twice about ploughing a field or allowing a bulldozer in. "Angering the fairies was never a good idea. It disturbs everything - nature itself," says Bolger. Then: "You have to see the set." Across the city, at the Gaiety Theatre, the set is arriving. We approach it from the rear. Up a dark laneway, populated, at least according to set designer Monica Frawley, by hordes of rats, the back of the stage is open to the night.

Several figures are moving about. A series of corridors brings us to the front of the stage. Frawley is there, studying her creation: a dream vision in blue light. Her forest is dominated by a deserted farmhouse. The building is almost derelict; nature has begun to take over.

Frawley and Bolger look at the set and plot. Having worked together on Orfeo ed Euridice, they have developed a telepathy. One wonders what they could do with Verdi's Macbeth. Their A Midsummer Night's Dream evokes a rural Ireland that may have just about disappeared - or has it?

"These fairies are not all pink and wings," says Frawley, who admits that, while theatre is wonderful, opera enters another dimension. "It's the music; it always seems to make that 'something extra' possible."

She describes the moment when the fairies saw their costumes: "One of the little girls just looked at me as if to say: 'I'm not wearing that, have you got something nicer, something pink?' We are giving them a country look, but one that spans generations. Some of them are from now; some from 50 years ago; some from 100 years ago; some from 150 years ago. They are also a bit greenish, to give the impression that they are atrophied."

IT SOUNDS DARING, ALMOST ghost-like, but the emphasis seems to be that this could be happening now, or in the past. There are layers of time at work. Throughout the interview, which has become a picaresque of sorts, Bolger and Frawley return to a prevailing theme: the definitive achievement of Shakespeare, how singular his imagination and how perceptive his intelligence. "If you look at A Midsummer Night's Dream," says Bolger, "you see time and again how well he understood how people think, how we react." Frawley adds: "And then there's the humour."

In common with Bolger, Frawley has had a previous relationship with A Midsummer Night's Dream. "When I was an art student in London, I had to do a final-year project, taking a play and designing a set for it. I chose my favourite play, A Midsummer Night's Dream. Looking at a play like this as an opera gives such freedom; the music lends itself to a visual imagination. The music makes the images."

She mentions the soft snow she intends using. "It ties in with what you were saying about nature in upheaval, this sense of disruption. Of course, as a designer, you always find yourself saying: 'Let's try that', and suddenly there is no limit . . . it doesn't always work," she says, cheerfully - because she knows it usually does.

• Opera Ireland's A Midsummer Night's Dream is at the Gaiety Theatre tomorrow and Nov 18, and 21 as part of Opera Ireland's season which also includes Madama Butterfly

SHAKESPEARE GOES TO THE OPERA

Verdi not only recognised a good story - he knew how to turn it into great opera and drew three of his finest from Shakespeare. When Macbeth premiered in 1847, Verdi, then 34, took 38 curtain calls. Almost 30 years would pass before he again turned to Shakespeare, this time Othello. In The Merry Wives of Windsor the main attraction for Verdi was the larger-than-life character of Sir John Falstaff, causing Verdi to also consult Henry IV and Henry V. It was Verdi's final opera - and what a triumphant farewell. Wagner's second opera, Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love), staged in 1835 when Wagner was 22, is based on Measure for Measure. Berlioz's Béatrice et Bénédict, based on Much Ado About Nothing, premiered in Baden Baden in 1862. Not one of the high points of his career, this pleasant comic opera has its moments and tunes, yet little of the subtle sharpness of Shakespeare's text.

Another Frenchman, Gounod, may be more famous for his Faust, but his Roméo et Juliette, which premiered in Paris in 1867, is his finest stage work.

It was left, fittingly, to Benjamin Britten, England's finest, most versatile composer since Purcell, to encroach upon Verdi's operatic domination of Shakespeare. Britten's imaginatively orchestrated score conveys the parallel worlds of human and fairy, while the opera buff of the rustics is a clever parody of early 19th-century Italian opera.