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OPERA REVIEW : Britten's Elusive 'Dream' Staged at Wiltern

February 18, 1988|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | Times Music Critic

Benjamin Britten's setting of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which threatened to evaporate in the vast open spaces of the Wiltern Theatre Tuesday night, is lovely, witty, clever and potentially poignant. Also long.

Completed in 1960 and first performed here the following year by the San Francisco Opera, it speaks a delicate musical language--actually four delicate languages--while paying simultaneous lip service to the fantastic vocabulary of Shakespeare and the staid conventions of the lyric theater.

This is heady stuff. It also happens to be precious stuff. It demands intense concentration, the suspension of whimsical disbelief and sensitivity to intimate expressive impulses.

It can cast a hypnotic spell in a small theater, where there is no problem hearing the piping tones of the enchanted children or the playful words of Puck, where the countertenor cast as the fairy king can sound heroic as well as otherworldly, where the subtle textures of the tiny orchestra can project their own mercurial reality.

With its 2,314 seats, the Wiltern is relatively small. It is nearly a third smaller, in fact, than the anachronistic Shrine Auditorium, which had housed the local premiere. The Wiltern still is too big for "A Midsummer Night's Dream," however, and the quirky acoustic of this renovated movie palace is not exactly advantageous.

From the first row of the balcony, a sympathetic listener had to strain to grasp two words in 10. It was nice to be spared the redundant distraction of supertitles, for a change. Still, one longed in vain to be closer to the verbal action. Perhaps the cast should have been coaxed, and coached, to articulate the text crisply in British rather than casually in American.

Under the circumstances, Britten's exquisite meanderings and Shakespeare's gentle strokes of comedic profundity seemed to be taking place far in the distance.

Nevertheless, certain delights survived the alienation. It was still possible to savor the distinctions between the eerie vocal stratosphere inhabited by the fairies, the sensitive but more prosaic idiom allotted the foolish amorous mortals and the sweet music-hall vulgarity (and odd bel-canto satire) assigned the rustics. It was still possible, after a fashion, to admire the shimmer of Britten's night music, the suave mystery of his forest music, the prim organization of his chaos ensembles.

The Music Center production, populated exclusively by local talent, revealed high degrees of polish. Britten conceived the opera as an ensemble piece and the mutually responsive Music Center forces played it that way.

Gordon Davidson, the director, has given his singers vital profiles and sustained a fluid, even perky, action scheme. He took a few odd liberties with the original, adding a brief but confusing mime prologue and swapping the ancient Athenian frame--to no obvious advantage--for a Victorian ambiance. But he also introduced at least one beguiling inspiration when he transformed the chronically mischievous Puck into a cross between the Artful Dodger and Peter Pan.

Robert Duerr, the relatively inexperienced conductor, enforced clarity and neat momentum with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. He also did what could be done to sustain proper balance between stage and pit. He turned out to be a bit reticent, however, in matters of dynamic nuance, and his basic concern seemed to be musical cohesion rather than dramatic definition.

Ironically, dramatic definition was hindered further by the designs. Douglas W. Schmidt's basic set, a massive, gnarled tree trunk on a cluttered turntable, tried to convey the midsummer night's magic in terms of leftover Christmas-decoration glitz. Lewis Brown's costumes outfitted Tytania in punk-purple hair, tried desperately to make Hermia and Helena look fat and ugly, forced Oberon to stalk the boards in leathery Vegas chic. One missed charm, taste, the light touch. . . .

The youthful cast was strong. Jeffrey Gall explored the soprano territory of Oberon with aggressive aplomb. Virginia Sublett mustered the coloratura exertions of Tytania with elegant purity. Michael Gallup exuded hearty basso bonhomie as Bottom, with or without the ass's head. John Allee flew through the air with the greatest of cheeky ease as Puck.

In the quartet of foolish mortals, Alice Baker was the dark-toned Hermia, Angelique Burzynski the sweet-toned Helena, Jonathan Mack the sprightly Lysander and Rodney Gilfry the ardent Demetrius. The crusty rustics, all agreeably understated, included Heinz Blankenburg, Greg Fedderly, John Atkins, Stephen Plummer and Peter Van Derick, as well as a scene-stealing canine guest named Gordon. Cleandre Norman mimed the Changeling adroitly.

Peter Van Derick and Stephanie Vlahos as the erstwhile Athenians, the timid choir boys masquerading as elves, the acrobatic extras masquerading as simian henchmen and the tippy-toe ballerina serving as Tytania's aid did their respective things earnestly. Larry Hyman provided the modest, usually well-integrated, occasionally obtrusive choreography.

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