Word has spread that opera productions mounted by the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music are among the best value in town, so it was little wonder that all four performances of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream were completely sold out long before opening night. Although Britten’s music is often regarded as being “difficult” in its chromatic atmospherics, this opera is often performed and consistently attracts large audiences. His Albert Herring is similarly popular, and MCM’s highly successful 2019 production was another sellout when performed at Hawthorn Arts Centre.
In this collaboration between Master of Music (Opera Performance), Bachelor of Music (Voice), Master of Design for Performance, and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music orchestra students, director Jane Davidson has scored another notable success. Her inventive Albert Herring and powerfully confronting staging of Poulenc’s Dialogue of the Carmelites the year before – one of the most memorable opera productions mounted in Melbourne over recent years – have provided excellent opportunities for students to hone their skills. Double casting has also given more students the opportunity to perform principal roles.
Space 28 has its challenges when presenting opera with a sizeable orchestra. From an audience perspective, the tiered seating afforded premium viewing for all, but the orchestra was placed right beside the singers, who often appeared to have limited visual contact with conductor Richard Davis for what can be rhythmically demanding music. To their great credit, the singers of both casts managed extremely well, aided by attentive, precise direction from Davis. A long, elevated platform, used mainly by the fairies, was angled to improve sight lines as well as add interest to a fairly minimal set.
Imaginative lighting effects provided much of the visual interest. Dappled overhead lighting created a forest floor, and three cloud-like columns hovered in the background, changing colour to reflect mood. Lights held by the fairies as they danced, and a splendid light-threaded fairy dragonfly cloak in the final scene further evoked a sense of the magical. A diaphanous back curtain heightened a sense of fairies dissolving into the distance, particularly as Oberon and Tytania wafted out in their floating red robes.
Most magical of all was Britten’s score. An initial almost imperceptible hush of lower strings, like the soft glissando of groaning forest trees, established an otherworldly atmosphere of midsummer shadows. From Oberon’s ethereal harp and celeste shimmer to the rustics down-to-earth heartiness and Puck’s trumpet and snare-drum announcements, Britten’s music encompasses a marvellous range of sonic landscapes. The orchestra, bolstered by renowned professional musicians, who were often paired with MCM students, played superbly throughout.
Although it was disappointing that the singers wore body microphones, given the difficulty of understanding the text with the orchestra at such close quarters, amplification was an understandable compromise – especially given the absence of program notes or surtitles. The entrance of the fairies was unduly loud, however, and some stridency appeared on top notes in other places.
The casting of the Oberon was another unexpected compromise. Although written for countertenor, the role was performed by two mezzo-sopranos in this production. Despite misgivings about the casting of Oberon, I was delighted with how convincingly both mezzos performed the role. Elena Marcello was a composed Oberon, singing with steady, most pleasing tone, while Olivia Federow-Yemm, always a commanding presence, was by turns disdainful, menacing and smugly satisfied. A confident, expressive actor, Federow-Yemm also possesses a remarkable instrument – rich and substantial throughout a wide range with extraordinary low notes. Her musicality was admirable as she used finely honed breath control to shape phrases and linger on the softest diminuendos. As Oberon’s fairy queen, both Uma Dobia and Eliza Bennetts O’Connor were delightfully animated, Dobia especially managing the high tessitura and coloratura with commendable accuracy.
When it comes to comparing the singers in the paired roles, various difficulties arise. Singers brought different strengths to their performances and the success of the ensembles depended on the particular combination of voices to some extent. All four pairs of lovers sang and acted with dramatic verve. The confrontation scene between Helena (Lucy Schneider/Miriam Whiting-Reilly) and Hermia (Caitlin Rowe/ Hannah Kostros) was suitably fiery, with Whiting-Reilly and Kostros at an advantage as a better physical fit. Sopranos Kostros and Schneider excelled in the ensembles, their voices warm and gleaming on the higher notes. In the tenor role of Lysander (Joshua Morton-Galea/Harley Trusler) and the baritone role of Demetrius (Nicholas Sheppard/Nicholas Beecher) all impressed in their own way. The sublime Act 3 quartet, in which the happily paired lovers awaken in harmonious wonder, was beautifully rendered by both casts.
Some of the young singers undertaking the roles of Theseus, Hippolyta and the mechanicals, understandably, needed further vocal and artistic development. They had a useful role model in Jerzy Kozlowski, the only singer in the cast with extensive experience in professional companies. As Bottom the weaver – one of opera’s great comic roles – Kozlowski’s richly resonant bass-baritone provided a secure underpinning in the ensembles. Christopher-Jack Andrew was also terrific as the alternative over-enthusiastic Bottom, keen to play all the roles in Pyramus and Thisbe, the play being prepared for the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta. He sang strongly and put plenty of vitality into the comic elements. Yu-Tien (Denny) Lin was a sweetly prancing Flute, while Jack Jordan gave an assured performance in this role, excelling as Thisby. His falsetto singing was admirably controlled in the parody of the Mad Scene from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, complete with flute obbligato.
Luke Ward was the only person to play the same role in both casts. It was probably just as well since the skill set he displayed as Puck would have been hard to equal. Physically adept, he sprang, seemingly weightless, from floor to platform and cartwheeled across the stage as if about to take flight. A major contributor to the success of this production, he was an intensely focused performer, channelling a charismatic mischievous personality that infused key scenes with energy and excitement. He also had the vocal wherewithal to convincingly impersonate the voices of the two male lovers as he led them on a merry chase.
Britten’s inspired adaptation of Shakespeare’s most popular play was the perfect choice for a Melbourne midsummer and ideal entertainment for the Festive Season.
Photo credit: Ben Fon
Heather Leviston attended the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music’s production of Benjamin Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, held at Space 28, University of Melbourne Performing Arts, on December 8 and 9, 2022.