Shakespeare’s comedies are about as funny as lobotomy – but this adaptation is a triumph

A Midsummer Night's Dream at Garsington
A Midsummer Night's Dream at Garsington - Alastair Muir

I have struggled with Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is not because of the music, which has a warmth rare in Britten from this phase of his life. (His next major work was his War Requiem, whose abrasiveness is more typical). But A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in inhabiting its own sound-world, evokes other difficulties. Britten’s erstwhile friend W H Auden, who had fallen out with him not least because he began to find some of Britten’s music artificial, pretentious and what we might today call exclusive, described the work as “Dreadful! Pure Kensington”. 

One assumes he meant written for a social elite who were intellectually undemanding, but knew that a setting of Shakespeare by Britain’s most adulated composer would fit well with their idea of themselves. 

Premiered in 1960, the opera was a collaboration between Britten and his partner Peter Pears after Myfanwy Piper, who wrote libretti for some of the composer’s other works and who had been asked to do it, became fed up with Pears muscling in with his own ideas: so she left him to it. Only six words of the entire text are not Shakespeare’s, so Pears cannot be faulted for his faithfulness to the Bard. Heavy cuts had to be made if the finished opera were not to end up even longer than any of Wagner’s, but all the features of the play that are admired are there – notably the play within the play. 

Pears normally took the lead male role in any of Britten’s works for voice, but in this case chose to play Flute, one of the Mechanicals, who is then incarnated as Thisby, and thus has an opportunity for some transvestism. The lead role of Oberon was written for Alfred Deller, the celebrated counter-tenor, which has been another obstacle to my enjoyment of the work: one either likes the counter-tenor voice or one does not, and I’m afraid I do not. That is manifestly a failing in me, as is the biggest obstacle of all: which is that, like all Shakespeare’s comedies, I find the play itself about as funny as a lobotomy – but then our conception of humour, and sense of what is comical, have changed profoundly since 1596. 

My opinion of the opera has been revised upwards by the magnificent performance now being presented at Garsington, in a production by Netia Jones, starring Iestyn Davies as Oberon and Lucy Crowe as Tytania. It runs until July 19 and if you are lucky you may be able to get tickets still. Davies has such a commanding stage presence that even those like me who struggle to enjoy the sound of the counter-tenor cannot but admire him. The entire cast display an enthusiasm and exuberance that it is hard to imagine could be surpassed.

Jerone Marsh-Reid as Puck
Jerone Marsh-Reid as Puck - Alastair Muir

Garsington, which is developing rapidly as a highly successful arts hub, has its own youth company, and its members play a chorus of fairies – and do so to perfection. The composer would have approved of the naturalness of the children’s voices, of a quality familiar from his own recordings and blissfully lacking that overtrained sound that robs a child’s voice of any personality.

There are other highly commendable performances in this cast, notably James Way as the cross-dressing Flute, who came closer than anyone to achieving a genuine comic effect as well as having a fine voice. Two other Mechanicals – John Savournin as a resonant Quince, and particularly Richard Burkhard as Bottom, whose immaculate acting skills matched his voice – also stood out. Among the four lovers the most compelling was Camilla Harris as Helena, who filled the auditorium with her voice and charisma and has the talent to have a stunning future. Douglas Boyd, Garsington’s artistic director, conducted the Philharmonia sensitively, ensuring that the entire musical component was judged to perfection. It is always dangerous to call anything flawless, but this production seemed to be just that.

That achievement owes much to the design, also undertaken by Netia Jones. In the first act, the back of the stage was open to the elements so one felt one was in woodland. A stage that sloped down towards the audience made us all feel involved; and there were entertaining moments such as a tree impaled on a grand piano (or was it the other way round?) for no reason at all. If you see only one opera this summer, see this one.