Substance, not pure silliness, the heart of "A Midsummer Night’s Dream"

Iestyn Davies (Oberon); photo Curtis Brown for the Santa Fe Opera, 2021

Santa Fe Opera, July 31

Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which opened on Saturday, July 31, is the Santa Fe Opera doing what it does best, presenting an ensemble opera performed with exceptional musical values by a talented young cast in a staging that’s both lively and deeply thoughtful.

It was a long time in coming. The opera’s American premiere was scheduled here for the 1961 season, but Britten, who could be ruthless in his business and personal dealings, withdrew the rights in favor of the more prestigious and no doubt higher-royalty-paying San Francisco Opera. It’s a shame. It would have been smashing here in the company’s first theater, with its intimate scale and wide-open nighttime vistas.

Conductor Harry Bicket’s extensive history with this opera was clear from his superb pacing, the music’s sense of unity with the staging, and the many beguiling sonorities he drew from the chamber-sized orchestra. The vocal performances ranged from very good to excellent, with one caveat: diction was variable. With the seat-back translation screen turned off, the words of the chorus and, at times, the higher-voiced principals could be difficult to understand.

The British polymath Netia Jones made her SFO debut as A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s stage director and designer of scenery, costumes, and projections. Her scenic design features a large deciduous tree that has poked its way through the raked floor, leaving a grand piano listing to port, and a very large disc suspended upstage left, used as a projection surface.

Circles, celestial and otherwise, are a recurring motif, and Jones brings an amusing variation on the Elizabethan trapdoor tradition with a dozen small, circular traps used primarily by the chorus. (Due to coronavirus restrictions, the called-for children’s chorus was replaced with adults and most of their onstage work was taken by a movement group that included some Wise Fool members.)

The time setting is the 1950s or ‘60s, as evidenced by the costumes for the quartet of lovers and the mid-century modern black chaise lounge that could have come straight from a psychiatrist’s office. In fact, attendees might want to brush up their Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung in addition to their Shakespeare, as important tenets of their work drive the production concept.

Freud’s notion of the id comes into play as the four young lovers use the anarchy of the forest to explore previously suppressed desires, and Jung’s idea of opposites — of a person and his or her shadow, of light and dark — is central to production’s tightly controlled visual palette of white, shades of gray, and black, and to the appearance of the lovers’ shadow characters in Act II.

Projections are liberally used throughout the evening. Some are stunning, such as the starscapes that appear near the end of Act III and the video montage of production photos that accompanies Puck’s final declaration to the audience (“That you have but slumbr’d here, while these visions did appear”). Some don’t add much, and several distract from important stage moments by presenting large, literal versions of Shakespeare’s poetic imagery.

Soprano Erin Morley and countertenor Iestyn Davies dispatched the high-flying vocalism of Tytania and Oberon with ease, and Davies tapped into a noteworthy connection to the emotional depths underlying his character. Their reconciliation, which had been much in doubt until the end of the final act, was expertly calibrated. Actor-dancer-production choreographer Reed Luplau was a charming and athletic Puck.

In a welcome decision, the opera cast four apprentice singers as the young lovers, ensuring that they actually seemed young. Duke Kim was a standout as Lysander, singing with a bright, easily produced lyric tenor and acting with a conviction and credibility. Soprano Teresa Perrotta and mezzo-soprano Adanya Dunn were nicely contrasting as Helena and Hermia, with the former offering a fuller, richer voice, and the latter a more nuanced and physically engaged characterization. Understudy Luke Sutliff was an impressive substitute for an indisposed singer as Demetrius.

The mechanicals are Brenton Ryan (Flute), Matthew Grills (Snout), Nicholas Brownlee (Bottom), Patrick Carfizzi as (Starveling), William Meinert (Snug), and Kevin Burdette (impresario Peter Quince), who struggles to keep his acting troupe on track as they rehearse “The most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe.”

Their command performance was reliably funny, highlighted by Grills’ plaster-encrusted portrayal of the character Wall and especially by Ryan’s transformation as Thisbe, who is initially disappointed to be playing another female role, but is transformed from tentative and insecure in the first two acts to radiantly diva-esque in Act III, sailing onstage clad in a glamorous red ball gown and elbow-length white gloves.

Jones’ decision to set the opera in the recent past paid big dividends in the subsequent “Bergomask dance,” which can sometimes be a letdown. Here, it continued the zany energy of “the lamentable comedy,” with Carfizzi and Burdette hoofing it as an irrepressible, spotlight-hogging, vaudeville-style duo.

This is a production — perhaps even more than the SFO’s production of Eugene Onegin — will appeal to those who are happy with, or at least willing to be convinced by, a non-traditional staging. Jones’ production is about people exploring new emotional depths, not fairies and elves flitting gaily about an Elizabethan forest.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream performances are at 8 p.m. on Aug. 13, and 19. Tickets are $36-$278 for in-theater seating. All performances are being simulcast to the opera’s lower parking lot. Prices are $100 to $125 per car, depending on proximity to the screen. 505-986-5900, santafeopera.org

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