Benjamin Britten's operas have always fared well in Italy. Since the beginning of this millennium La Scala has staged A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Turn of the Screw, Death in Venice and three productions of Peter Grimes – the latest finishing its run last week. Luca Ronconi's superb production of The Turn of the Screw with Raina Kabaivanska was staged by Teatro Regio in Turin, A Midsummer Night's Dream in Palermo was televised in 2017, Modena has seen The Little Sweep and Peter Grimes in recent years, Rome Opera has staged Billy Budd, Grimes and The Dream… it's a long list. In a country where a generation championed Luciano Berio and such – Berio's last opera to be staged at La Scala was Graham Vick's production of Outis in the 1990s – these contemporary composers have largely fallen by the wayside, while Britten has gained, and maintained, ground.
A run of A Midsummer Night's Dream has just concluded in Genoa at Teatro Carlo Felice. A stunningly beautiful production with sets by Gary McCann, and evocative lighting by John Bishop, which created everchanging spaces for the singers. A theatre within the theatre is defined by a coloured ‘proscenium' that subtly shifts colour and intensity. It is raised, which also niftily solves the problem of the court watching the mechanicals' play yet not blocking the view of the paying punters in the stalls. Below the raised stage is a grassy bank where lovers sleep, and magic potion is applied (by an Italian Puck, the only cast member who was not a native English speaker). In the raised theatre only the trunks of trees are seen, trees so enormous that their unseen upper branches reach well beyond the roof of the opera house. The trunks spread out or group together in copses, with projections at the back of the stage – sometimes naturalistic, sometimes creating a dreamscape – producing astonishing depth. Bishop's meticulously shaped lighting makes the space both threatening and joyful.
The creative team was brought together by the director Laurence Dale, who had an outstanding cast led by Donato Renzetti in the pit. From the opening bars, with sliding strings suggesting the forest stirring, breathing, dreaming – it is certainly creepy, whatever Britten had in mind – Renzetti brought out Britten's various motifs, kept the children's chorus tight, and gave rhythmic push to the mechanicals' scenes.
Dale portrayed the humans of the story as believable, naturalistic characters notwithstanding the surrealness of the plot. The supernatural characters were as regal as the court, except for a nimble Puck who flew on wires. Dale's smart conceit was to have Oberon as an invisible troublemaker, deliberately confusing the nervous mechanicals and upending their play. Maybe ‘troublemaker' is going easy on him as McCann's sado-black costumes for Oberon and Titania certainly do not suggest gently wafting spirits but rather two intolerant and slightly malicious creatures. Dale's greatest skill is the directness with which he presents the storyline, without confusing gimmicks and puzzling symbolism, giving clarity to Shakespeare's already convoluted plot.
McCann's costumes are winning, loosely based on Elizabethan designs but with idiosyncratic twists pinched from the fashion catwalk – Theseus and Hippolyta of the Royal Court are in blindingly reflective gold, and the four lovers in white look as though they've raided a Vivienne Westward showroom.
Of the large cast – the financial commitment for an opera house is considerable with fifteen soloists! – Sydney Mancasola's coloratura for Titania was impressive, and Christopher Ainslie as Oberon showed his beautiful, if occasionally underpowered, countertenor; Helena was exquisitely sung by Keri Fuge; young David Shipley as Bottom has a natural, rich bass, and Seumas Begg's Flute was well judged in his comic pathos while impressively sung; Scott Wilde had suitable power and vocal authority as the Duke, Theseus.
Laurence Dale was a well-respected tenor – he was last seen in Genoa in Giorgio Strehler's production of Don Giovanni – and has worked as a conductor and festival director since leaving his singing career. His all-round knowledge of the opera world gives a unique understanding of singers and the music – “Of course you can sing that phrase flat on your back”. I'm speculating of course, but I bet his cast had faith in his vision and staging ideas, something that is certainly not a given with many opera directors working today if backstage whisperings are anything to go by.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.