sat 20/07/2024

Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shadwell Opera, Rosslyn Chapel | reviews, news & interviews

Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shadwell Opera, Rosslyn Chapel

Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shadwell Opera, Rosslyn Chapel

Brave student shot at Britten's elaborate opera in a magical setting

Maud Millar's Tytania surrounded by her girl fairies

Forget Dan Brown’s phony grail trail which has led so many paying pilgrims to Rosslyn outside Edinburgh. For the last week of the Festival Fringe the Chapel, most intricate and mysterious of 15th-century sanctuaries, has become a temple of high art dedicated to Mozart, Shakespeare and Britten. Ambitious indeed of a bunch of Cambridge undergrads and alumni to mount The Magic Flute and the operatic Midsummer Night’s Dream side by side. Did they pull it off?

Just, in the case of the Britten, which is saying something given a score which is... well, again, intricate and mysterious are the adjectives that spring to mind.

First, certainly, find your singers – which they had, and cast them mostly well, too - but perhaps also make sure you have an orchestra of virtuosi. And here the brave attempt to find an ad hoc group of musicians prepared to come from all corners to play for free nearly sank the enterprise. The composer would not, perhaps, have recognised the aleatorics that bedevilled whole stretches of the score.

Conductor Aidan Coburn held it all admirably together, but there were gaps in the texture where the cadenzaing woodwind went missing. I didn’t quite hear the soughing of the boughs in what should have been those primeval string glissandi at the beginning – though at least the forest of Rosslyn’s elaborate pillars established some kind of spell. And poor Puck’s trumpet never did quite get on the highwire. Fortunately his stage incarnation, Cambridge PhD student and DJ Ssegewa-Ssekintu Kiwanuka (pictured below right), had all the charisma needed for a new take on Robin Goodfellow very different from the pubescent boy Britten envisaged.

DSCF0561Though this is not a singing role, Kiwanuka used his voice strikingly through several octaves. He could teach many of the nice young singers a thing or two about projection, focus and the power of stillness. You couldn’t escape the feeling sometimes that these were sophisticated choral scholars come home to roost in a chapel, for the true operatic welly needed to keep Britten’s brink-of-pallid writing for Shakespeare’s four young lovers didn’t often kick in. They looked good, though, especially in their underwear, and Rachel Bagnall’s Helena had something of the energy needed. A bit more work on the text might have helped in the difficult Act Two quarrel.

Top vocal quality came from the fairy consorts. Maud Millar’s Tytania proved queenly and economical of gesture – another object lesson to many in the cast for what to do with their hands – while weaving some gorgeous upper-register spookiness, and Tom Verney’s counter-tenor Oberon suggested latent anger behind his fine-spun lines.

For mechanicals, read students doing hempen-homespun. Tristan Hambleton is an elegant baritone, aristocratic of phrase, hardly a natural Bottom. His fellow rustics had the mugs, sometimes overdid the mugging and raised many of the necessary laughs in the very tragical comedy of Pyramus and Thisbe, not least Edward Leach’s gurning moon/ Snout. In this production by Jack Furness and Imogen Tedbury, their Elizabethan garb clashed – apparently was meant to, though I’m still not quite sure why – with supposedly post-rave lovers (they looked Victorian to me - and why the blond wig for Helena?), silk-dressing-gowned and angry Theseus and Hippolyta and the white, mirrored world of the fairies. Furness and Tedbury had replaced Britten’s innocent/ corrupt boy sprites with candyfloss-haired maidens singing divinely and writhing Isadoraishly.

450px-RoslinChapelAppColJMThat they did too often, perhaps, and too many were crowded onto the very small platform beneath Rosslyn’s virgin. The onstage witching should surely have been left, for the most part, to the four excellent mid-teen leaders. Then, perhaps, it might not have seemed so random, along with the mysteriously roving spotlights which often appeared to be evading their targets.

Something of the clarity which finally struck, both orchestrally and vocally, in the lovers’ awakening might have been brought to bear throughout: less is more always seems a difficult maxim for students to adopt. All credit to the Cantabrians, though, for their skill in occupying the still partly under-wraps chapel (the legendary Apprentice's Pillar pictured above): this has to be the most evocative of all festival venues, surely. Full marks, too, to their powers of organisation and their well-deserved sell-out run.

The still partly under-wraps Rosslyn Chapel has to be the most evocative of all festival venues, surely

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