For their final production of an acclaimed season, the BLO has given us a lucid Dream. That is, Benjamin Britten’s adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As much as Britten and librettist Peter Pears left the story pretty much intact, the opera is much more interested in the fairy world, and after that the amateur stage of Shakespeare’s rustic players, than the Athenian court. And it’s here that the BLO (particularly set designer John Conklin, as it is in its many sets and scenery pieces that this production is most distinctive) took it and ran. We don’t get the typical fertile forest imagery of Shakespeare’s greenworld, but a psychedelic dreamscape where giant fluorescent neon circles descend from above the dark stage, so it glows like a black light poster. Some of the constantly changing scenery is based on children’s artwork gathered in a BLO outreach program and some resembles the trippy iconography of Salvador Dalí. Metallic orbs, different moons, spray-painted murals, and the Thonet No. 14 chairs of post-impressionist cafés float around director Tazewell Thompson’s stage.
Some have criticized the scenic imagery of this Dream to be a little muddled, despite some unifying symbols that appear in different incarnations throughout the opera. Well, at least one symbol; the moon, which is really convenient in signifying the night, dreams, and fertility. Of course, the dreamscape isn’t just in the sets. Tytania is sexed up like a Barbara Eden fantasy and Oberon, with his leather vest and boots, looks like he belongs in a very different kind of fantasy. Just as Shakespeare’s three slowly converging plotlines begin to separate, Britten’s music (well played here by David Agnus and band) clearly demarcates the plots and characters, allotting the most fanciful motifs for the fairy world. He saved a special fanfare for Puck, a purely spoken role poetically played here by Karim Sulayman. Although he gets around a lot, I’ve always thought of Puck as clearly a citizen of the fairy world, but Britten made him so musically unique that, despite being subservient to Oberon, he’s like Leonardo DiCaprio in Inception; he’s the master of the dream world.
On the other side of this dreamscape is a hilarious rendering of the rustics’ production of Pyramus and Thisbe, which gets a long treatment at the end of the opera. I suppose it’s there, in a way, to wake us up. But even their rehearsal exits in the psychedelic dream space. Huge set pieces labeled “TREE,” etc. are wheeled out mimicking Bottom and company’s issues with the illusions of theater.
Since most of the play is here, and the language is all Shakespeare’s, the opera feels a lot like a production of the play and I think I’d actually like to see these sets used in a theatrical production. They’re so far from the plain Jane stock backdrop scenery we see in too many operas. A particularly large cast, mostly out-of-towners, act and sing well, channeling not only Britten’s music, but the original text’s characters. Acting is something this production does exceedingly well. Highlights include Nadine Sierra’s Tytania, John Gaston’s Oberon, Karim Sulayman’s Puck, and Susanna Phillips’ Helena.