Princeton Festival’s production of Benjamin Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” seen on opening night, Saturday, June 20, was a staged portrait of the fantastic — wispy, and incongruous. Both what was seen and what was heard coalesced to form a vividly solid phantom.
Credit goes to director Steven LaCosse and his imaginative team of designers: Jayme Mellema, sets; Marie Miller, costumes; and Norman Coates, lighting. Conductor Richard Tang Yuk led singers and instrumentalists in discreet displays of musical mastery that blended with the atmosphere of unreality.
Using no curtain, the production greets the audience by showing the projection of a forest, domain of the fairies, whose limits are shrouded in mist. A disembodied voice, speaking in rhymed couplets, sets a Shakespearean mood by declaiming, “Friends, Romans, Princetonians” and advising listeners to turn off cell phones and avoid littering candy wrappers. During the course of the opera the forest undergoes transformations. Lights appear among the branches of trees. Seasons arbitrarily change.
Puck (Dean Anthony), eerily omnipresent in this production, opens the opera by popping up from the orchestra pit, wizened and clad in feathers. He brings unity to the production by appearing at its conclusion, as well as turning up constantly on stage. Anthony is often referred to as “the tumbling tenor.” As the mischievous Puck, he virtually flies, while performing conjuring tricks. Anthony’s formidable gymnastic skills are amplified, since Puck is ironically portrayed as being about 70, decades older than Anthony is in real life. Enlisted by Oberon, Puck is responsible for misapplying fairy magic and bringing about the mix-ups that causes characters to become enamored of unlikely partners. Tytiana falls in love with the ass into which Puck had changed Bottom.
Oberon, king of the fairies, is a counter-tenor (Daniel Bubeck), a consistent reminder that we are in unfamiliar territory. Cloaked in authoritative black and silver, he and his diminutive wife, Tytiana (Jennifer Zetlan), commands the fairies, while carrying on a very human marital spat. The young fairies, played by the Princeton Festival Children’s Chorus, dutifully report the news of the forest and carry out the wishes of Oberon and Tytiana. Four members of the competent chorus take on solo roles: Peaseblossom (Adam Butz-Weidner), Cobweb (Joel Pena), Moth (Reed Schmidt), and Mustardseed (William Christensen.)
Fleeing Athens, two mismatched pairs of lovers encounter the fairies. They are Lysander (Brian Stucki)) and Hermia (Abigail Nims), followed by Demetrius (Tyler Duncan) and Helena (Caroline Worra). Both Lysander and Demetrius love Hermia. Helena loves Demetrius. Among the four, Stucki’s voice is outstanding from the outset in its smoothness. Initially on opening night, the women were often difficult to hear above the orchestra; however, they presented a provocatively audible cat-fight in Act Two. All four of the lovers contribute to the well-balanced quartet in Act Three. Their costumes seem to date from about 1910.
Six rustics, tradesmen, bring comic relief to the opera, as they do to the Shakespearean play, by rehearsing the drama of Pyramus and Thisbe. Their dress could have come from the late 16th century. Bottom (Curtis Streetman) has the largest part and the largest voice. “Here we may rehearse most obscenely and courageously,” he knowingly announces. The acting of their leader, Quince (Brian Banion), is outstanding. With a straight face, he calls the rustics’ play a “most lamentable comedy.” Snug (Jeremy Milner) admits his mental slowness and has to rush back on stage repeatedly to fetch what he leaves behind. The troupe includes Flute (Douglas Perry), Snout (John Daniecki), and Starveling (Michael Redding.)
The Princeton Festival Orchestra, under Richard Tang Yuk, contributes to the magic with spotlighted solo instrumental passages. Two harps, aided by a celesta, make other-worldly sounds. Aggressive, bare percussion sounds underline the unreality. The use of extended instrumental techniques by brass instruments reminds us that the events depicted are out of the ordinary. Rich cello solos underline the emotional aspects of the opera.
Princeton Festival’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is a gently-paced voyage into an extraordinary realm.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Princeton Festival, McCarter Theater, Princeton. Sunday, June 28, 3 p.m. Benjamin Britten’s opera. $30 to $110. 800-595-4849 or www.princetonfestival.org.