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S & H Opera Review

Britten, "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Benjamin Britten International Opera School, Royal College of Music Opera Orchestra, cond. Michael Rosewell, Britten Theatre, Saturday November 17th. (M.E.)


This production commemorates not only Britten's anniversary but the dedication to the composer of the new Opera School, and after its London run, it will transfer to Edinburgh. Directed by John Copley, familiar from his many ROH productions as well as his collaboration with Britten on the premiere of the work, and conducted by Michael Rosewell who conducted it at its first ever Aldeburgh revival, it matched these eminent participants with a cast which comprised more up - and - coming talent than I have ever before seen on a single stage.

The production's general feel was one of lightness and simplicity, with a refreshing directness in the movement and interactions. Delicate, filigree giant-snowflake shapes suggesting the lacy framework of forest leaves within their boundaries, beautifully lit, descended at moments where concealment was required, and were also used to frame scenes where a tableau was called for. Props were kept to a minimum, most of the atmosphere being created by the marvellous costumes (Reginald Hanson and Angela Henry) which did not merely delight the eye but effectively delineated the characters, from the blinding starchiness of the young lovers, through the muted charcoal and cream of the "rude mechanicals" to the spangled, phosphorescent other-worldliness of the inhabitants of the fairy kingdom.

The young fairies were evocatively costumed and sung with real style and exemplary diction by children from the Centre for Young performers, and Daniel Mortimer's Puck was not only convincingly acted but enthrallingly agile; how often do you see a Puck who actually manages to convince you that he might well be able to "put a girdle round the earth in forty minutes?" The monarchs of the Fairy realm were hardly less convincing; Clint van der Linde's Oberon revealed an eerily handsome stage presence and a beautiful, soft voice - his acting was commanding in itself, although he did not muster that absolute authority in his singing which was the hallmark of James Bowman, but then that is to judge him at a very high level for a singer who is still in his early twenties. Titania was embodied in the lovely presence of Miriam Lakhsasi, whose sweet, perhaps slightly too warbling, voice and skilful assumption of the role gave great pleasure.

The young lovers were sung by as able a quartet as one could imagine any opera house fielding today; Jared Holt's youthfully arrogant, utterly charming Demetrius was sung with exemplary diction and faithfulness to the musical line, and Serena Kay's vivacious Hermia recalled the delightful acting and vibrant, polished singing of her teacher Lilian Watson. Helena and Lysander were taken by two young singers of whom I will be astonished not to hear a great deal more at the very highest level. Cora Burggraaf is only 24; she too studies with Watson, and has been selected for master class participation with many of the great singers of our time, and one can understand why. Statuesque of bearing and animated of countenance, Cora has a very fine voice with a real edge to it, dramatic in style and recalling, to my ears, that of Ileana Cotrubas; her phrasing is already elegant, and despite some nervousness, she gave a memorable performance of great promise.

Andrew Kennedy's Lysander immediately brought to mind another interpreter of that role, John Mark Ainsley, in his tasteful, intelligent singing, genuine feel for the shaping of Britten's phrases, and improbably graceful stage presence. Andrew, like Cora, is only 24, and already has an impressive C.V. to his name - his tenor is very even for so young a singer, impeccably produced and showing real sensitivity to words; he is a pupil of the distinguished tenor Neil Mackie, and it shows. The Lovers' quartet in Act 3 was exquisitely performed by all four singers, who seemed to revel in the tenderness of Britten's music, as did the orchestra.

The "rude mechanicals" were played and sung with great skill; special mention must be made of Jonas Duran's Snout / Wall, whose comic abilities and clear singing were a joy, Sion Goronwy's adorable Snug/Lion, and Robert Murray's Flute/Thisbe, whose voice broke so hilariously at all the "wrong" moments, and who treated us to as fine a bel-canto style parody in the "play" as I have ever heard. However, both vocal and histrionic laurels here, and indeed amongst the whole cast, must go to the immensely promising Jonathan Lemalu, who at 25 has already made his mark on the London musical scene with a fine Wigmore debut recital as well as appearing at the Proms.

Perfectly cast as Bottom, Jonathan is that very rare kind of singer, one with a truly beautiful, mellifluous instrument who is also a genuinely gifted actor, and from his first phrase he held us spellbound, but without upstaging the rest of the cast, since he also seems to have the gift of being an ensemble player. He is soon to sing Leporello at the Sydney Opera House, and I predict that after that, every opera house will want him, since his is a voice within which one can hear not only the great buffo roles but such parts as Wolfram, Simon Boccanegra and Mandryka. For those who have yet to encounter him, I would say that the established singer whom he most obviously resembles is Thomas Quasthoff, since he has the same inherently beautiful tone, the same level of crystalline enunciation, and the same kind of empathetic, animated communication with an audience. What a joy, to experience such a talent at so early a stage in his career.

There were no real weaknesses in this performance, since the orchestral playing was as evocative, delicate and supportive as could be wished, and even the smaller parts such as Hippolyta were well taken. I have to say that this was, overall, the best production I have seen this year, since both the direction and singing comfortably upstaged anything from either of our main houses. Whether or not that is merely an indication of the exceptional level of this performance, or a sad indictment of said main houses, I of course could not possibly comment.

Melanie Eskenazi


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