`Dream' is pure delight

Review: Peabody Opera Theatre nails the atmosphere created by Shakespeare and captured by Britten.

March 19, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Benjamin Britten, the 20th century's most compelling opera composer, once said that he "did not easily think in words, because words are not my medium." Yet when he decided to adapt Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," he managed to think very clearly not only in words but also in music; the text emerges as effortlessly for Britten as it once did for the Bard.

The enchantment of the original play, cut roughly in half to form a libretto, remains intact, often intensified by a musical score that (to borrow from another Shakespeare play) is "full of noises, sounds and sweet airs that give delight, and hurt not."

Delight was the operative word in Peabody Opera Theatre's production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which closed Saturday evening at Friedberg Hall. The staging had a classy patina that reaffirmed the quality and professionalism of Peabody Conservatory's opera department.

Within James M. Fouchard's simple, evocative unit set, subtly lighted by Douglas Nelson, the nocturnal world of Shakespeare's fairies, lovers and rustics unfolded seamlessly. John Lehmeyer's typically stylish costume design gave the production a distinctive look - darkly shimmering clothes for Oberon (in top hat and cape), Tytania and their fellow sprites; Victorian-era dress for the mortals.

Director Roger Brunyate applied a light and knowing touch, letting the delicacy and humor of the work emerge almost by itself; nothing seemed forced or exaggerated. There was a genuine elegance in the presentation, even at the most comic points. Most important, Britten and Shakespeare were equally, thoughtfully served.

Saturday's cast (two sets of principals were used for the production) was headed by Ryan de Ryke as the monarch of the fairy kingdom. His Oberon turned out to be a fascinating hybrid.

The part was originally intended for a countertenor or contralto but, as Brunyate discovered, adapted for baritone on at least one occasion by Britten himself. De Ryke sang most of the performance in what is his usual baritonal realm, and did so in warm, well-focused tones. But when it came to time to cast the Oberon's three spells in the opera, he switched gears effortlessly up into countertenor range.

The combination of vocal colors might have startled Britten, but it worked here, providing at least a taste of the ethereal sound the composer envisioned for Oberon. De Ryke might want to look into the possibility of developing his falsetto capacity further; the countertenor voice type just happens to be in lucrative vogue throughout today's opera world.

Soprano Angela M. Caesar revealed considerable potential as impressive Tytania. A flutter in the tone early on gave way to beautifully modulated vocalism that sent the work's most lyrical melodic ideas soaring. Among the lovers, Taylor Wallace Brickley's mellow tones as Lysander stood out; there were spirited contributions from Seung-Hee Han (Hermia), Karen D. Zizzi (Helena) and Brian Ming Chu (Demetrius).

Brendan Cooke had an engaging romp through the role of Bottom, doing some vibrant and amusing vocal turns along the way. Jason Hentrich, as Flute, likewise proved adept at colorful singing and comic timing. The rest of the rustic fellows - especially Jeremy C. Blossey as Snout and former Peabody student Adam Schulz as Peter Quince - spiced up the performance nicely.

In the speaking role of Puck, Kenneth Harmon cavorted all over the stage with a balletic lightness; crisper diction would have capped an ingratiating interpretation. Christopher Douglas Rhodovi (Theseus), Patricia Portillo (in rich voice as Hippolyta) and a host of nimble, sweet-voiced fairies added to the evening's success.

So did the Peabody Concert Orchestra. Occasional glitches of intonation and coordination aside, the young players articulated the score's transparent textures with remarkable sensitivity under the direction of Robert Sirota. His consistently incisive phrasing helped to reaffirm the ingenuity and sheer magic of Britten's most endearing opera.

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