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Midsummer erotomania

07/06/2004 -  and 7, 9, 10 July 2004


06/23/2004 and 25, 29 June, 5, 8 July 2004

Benjamin Britten: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Emil Wolk (Puck), Robin Blaze (Oberon), Sarah Tynan (Tytania), Victoria Simmonds (Hermia), Alfred Boe (Lysander), Leigh Melrose (Demetrius), Graeme Danby (Quince), Peter Rose (Bottom), Leslie John Flanagan (Starveling), Robert Burt (Snout), Christopher Gillett (Flute), Clive Bayley (Snug), Iain Paterson (Theseus), Leah-Marian Jones (Hippolyta), Alexander Main-Ian (Cobweb), Robert Grisbrook (Peaseblossom), Christopher Kallend (Mustardseed), Sanjeevan Ahilan (Moth)

Paul Daniel (conductor), Emmanuelle Bastet (director)

ENO Orchestra, Trinity Boys Choir


06/07/2004 and 7, 9, 10 July 2004

Harrison Birtwistle: The Io Passion

Teresa Banham (Woman 1), Claire Booth (Woman 2), Amy Freston (Woman 3), Sam McElroy (Man 1), Joseph Alessi (Man 2), Richard Morris (Man 3)

Alan Hacker (music director, basset clarinet), Stephen Langridge (director)

Quatuor Diotima

The ENO’s revival of Robert Carsen’s feather light Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by his assistant Emmanuelle Bastet, arrived a couple of days late (the solstice was on 21 June this year) and rather earthier than before. The Athenians were young and glamorous as, an agile but weather-beaten Puck aside, were the fairies, while the rustics were suitably lumpen and comic. The singing, from Robin Blaze’s chilly ethereal Oberon to Clive Bayley’s sonorous Snug, was glorious throughout, and the comedy was low if often charming, enacted on a set that consisted of green beds. Somehow, though, the two didn’t quite gel into anything more, except perhaps in Sarah Tynan’s very naughty Tytania. From the spooky stirrings that open the opera, Paul Daniels brought out the cerebral side of the music in a way that sounds a bit old fashioned, and that can’t have helped either. Still, it was an enjoyable enough evening.

The Athens of Shakespeare’s play is probably just somewhere that isn’t here, a magic place where even daft, deluded lovers can pair off happily in the end. Athens combines the cosmic scope of Greek myths with the urban settings of farce: Oberon and Tytania, whose rows disrupt the seasons, are transparent masks for Zeus and Hera, while the craftsmen perform a would-be tragedy set in a city and based on ridiculous misunderstandings. It’s partly Windsor Forest with real fairies and partly the Naples of many a convoluted sex comedy before Così fan tutte. Two post-war musicals based on plays by Plautus and currently running in the UK show how much stagecraft seems to spring fully formed from Greco-Roman antiquity. Both, perhaps not by co-incidence, also end in the reconciliation of sorts of an old married couple and the putative marital bliss of a younger couple, plus a lot of other sexual jollity.

Cole Porter’s Out of this world (in repertory at the Chichester Festival ) is based on Amphitryo but has much in common with A Midsummer Night's Dream. Set on midsummer's night in Athens, a set of couples take time out to follow their libidos and learn a bit about themselves. Jupiter is after a newly married American woman who is ecstatically, perhaps masochistically in love with her husband -- "From this moment on" was written for her -- and Juno is out to stop him; Mercury, in between being Jupiter's runner has an exuberant fling with a young woman who wants to marry a millionaire but doesn't mind a bit of fun in the meantime. As a side bar, Juno pairs off with an unlikely character, in the original a gangster, in Greg MacKellan's adaptation a gossip columnist based on Louella Parsons, who she believes is Jupiter in disguise, and they have a screaming-queens ding-dong when she discovers the truth. The songs are all classic Cole Porter, but, as in Kiss me, Kate (which came immediately before), they form an integral part of the work, exploring the emotional states of love, desire and marriage in all their stages. Jeremy Sams' further adaptation uses a reprise of the playful and infantile "Cherry pies" to engineer a sentimental reconciliation of Jupiter and Juno that seems to conflict with the clear-eyed, hard-edged familiarity that is really what unites them. Nevertheless, it's an entertaining show, always hilarious, sometimes surprisingly moving.

Out of this world could be seen as an intermediate stage between A Midsummer Night's Dream and Stephen Sondheim's A little night music, which also revolves around three women of different ages and their views of love and marriage. But the Sondheim show currently in repertory at the National Theatre in London has none of the mature themes and emotional sophistication of his later work: also based on Plautus, A funny thing happened on the way to the forum combines breathtakingly ingenious plotting with cheerful vaudeville vulgarity. The giggles of the (impeccable) cast in the preview seen on 5 July showed that the humour in the songs is irresistible, but there is no depth whatsoever -- you leave the theatre with only a broad grin and the memory of some tunes.

Harrison Birtwistle has in the past often used cosmic myth as a form and context for realistic emotion, but the myth pushes the emotion to extremes of intensity and violence, removing completely the comfort of narrative. Britten and Peter Pears were said to have left the premiere of Punch and Judy at Aldeburgh after a few minutes, looking rather green. His new chamber opera, The Io Passion, also premiered at Aldeburgh before moving to the Almeida in London, in a strange way moves into Sondheim, even Woody Allen, territory, although without the obsession with language. A man and a woman have had a relationship that had an intense, mysterious but unidentified crisis or climax; she, indoors, has shut him out and carries on with her life, drinking tea and reading until she falls asleep in a chair; he, outside, delivers a letter which arrives as she dreams of Io, whose story she was reading; she replies to the letter and puts on lipstick to go out.

The action, such as it is, is repeated six times, with different views and voices emerging in each. Two singers and one actor represent each of the man and the woman, or their manifestations in the dream. The multiple performers embody different voices and also literally offer different views of the action, since the set shows both the inside and outside of the woman's house: when the enters her room on the right, we also see her in through the window on the left. Sometimes the man's thoughts or experience are in the foreground, emerging as song or speech, sometimes the woman's, and towards the end, her dream. In the dream, enacted in masks as tragedy, ritual and low comedy in turn, Zeus seduces or rapes Io, Hera interrupts and he turns Io into a cow, which Hera pursues with a gadfly. One iteration divided in two to make seven movements ("fits"), which correspond to the phases of the moon, which waxes and wanes across the set to mark each iteration.

Before we see the full dream, we hear the woman reading from Robert Graves' The white goddess, and it seems that the transformations of the action are related to the wanderings of Io and the associated wanderings of the moon, both reflections of the ages of woman (the triple goddess is mentioned explicitly), or perhaps here the phases of human erotic growth in general. We see the woman flicking off an invisible gadfly as she puts on lipstick, presumably to go out and deliver the reply that continues the relationship she wants to end, but it is clearly more than the sexual itch of a female in heat, and in the last moments of the work, the man repeats the gesture, accompanied by its characteristic buzz from the instruments.

Birtwistle says in an interview in the programme that he conceived the set, or better, the theatrical nature of the work, first and asked his librettist Stephen Plaice, for a text to go with it. The myth of Io was a later addition. The music, wonderfully played here by Quatuor Diotima (a name to conjure with in this context, since Diotima is Socrates' fictitious priestess of the mysteries of love in the Symposium), consists of a related formal transformation in each movement, with some recurring gestures, like the buzz of the gadfly in the strings, and the obsessive single note of the basset clarinet, a beautiful, strangely disturbing sound. The small forces (string quartet, keyboard and the basset clarinet) do not allow for a great variety of colour – this is not Duke Bluebeard's Castle, although the sevenfold shape hints at some common ground – but the fine grained interplay of the instruments offers constant variety. Although it seems strange to compare Birtwistle to Jane Austen, by his standards The Io Passion is a little piece of engraved ivory rather than the Stonehenge of his larger operas. There is a vast amount in it, but it never offers brute force.

HE Elsom



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