Concert Review: Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – New Opera Singapore, 16 Aug 2019

Tytania’s Fairy attendants with their fairy boys

Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream
New Opera Singapore

Artistic & Stage Director: Jeong Ae Ree
Assistant Artistic & Stage Director: Jeremy Chiew

Cast
Oberon Glenn Wong (Countertenor)
Tytania Victoria Songwei Li (Soprano)
Puck Dwayne Lau
Cobweb Melissa Wei-en Hecker (Soprano)
Mustardseed Yssela Erquiaga (Mezzo-soprano)
Moth Jasmine Grace Towndrow (Soprano)
Peaseblossom Lara Tan (Soprano)

Lysander Shaun Lee (Tenor)
Demetrius Kang Minseong (Baritone)
Hermia Rebecca Chellappah (Mezzo-soprano)
Helena Jennifer Lien (Soprano)

Bottom Sangchul Jea (Baritone)
Quince Keane Ong (Baritone)
Flute Adrian Poon (Tenor)
Snug David Lee (Bass-baritone)
Snout Samuel Ng (Tenor)
Starveling Francis Wong (Lyric baritone)

Theseus Shawn Liew Yuk En (Bass-baritone)
Hippolyta Patricia Sands (Soprano)

Anglo-Chinese School Junior and Barker Road Choirs
Phua Ee Kia, choirmaster

New Opera Singapore Orchestra
Music Director: Chan Wei Shing

16 August 2019
Victoria Theatre

Review by Aileen Tang

Mention A Midsummer Night’s Dream and most people would enthusiastically testify to being familiar with Shakespeare’s play of magic and madness. Tonight, New Opera Singapore’s whimsical performance of Benjamin Britten’s opera was no less captivating. Known for championing often edgy interpretations of less mainstream works, New Opera boasted a cast of some of the biggest names in Singapore opera alongside guest artistes from Korea’s Daegu Opera House and DaeKyoung Opera Company. 

The libretto by Britten and his partner Peter Pears removed Shakespeare’s original 1st Act completely, so we were thrust immediately into a fairy realm swathed in lavender and green. Schoolboys from the Anglo-Chinese School Junior and Barker Road Choirs as the pure-toned treble chorus of Spock-eared fairies were adorable, and delightful to listen to and look at, each time they appeared on stage.

Puck and Oberon (L to R)

Britten had written the role of Oberon the Fairy King especially for the leading English countertenor of the mid-20th century, Alfred Deller. While Glenn Wong certainly possessed the range and vocal prowess to handle the challenging role, he was less able to carry off its characterisation. Oberon is a bit of a self-important male chauvinist pig who resorts to almost-cruel trickery to teach his wife a lesson, and Wong came across as perhaps more of a sensitive new age man. Victoria Songwei Li, on the other hand, was a perfectly feisty Fairy Queen. Both dramatically and vocally – her brilliant coloratura soprano outshone his countertenor – Tytania was obviously the stronger partner in the marriage tonight. Li commanded the audience’s enraptured attention with an almost effortless grace and sensuality.

In contrast, Tytania’s fairy attendants were sadly more awkward than spritely. The four young women seemed at times to just be going through the choreographed motions with little expression; the exception was Moth, played endearingly by Jasmine Grace Towndrow. The mythical being who stole the show, though, was Puck – a role that seemed to have been made for the incredibly talented Dwayne Lau, impishly revelling in boot-licking mischief and a hint of charming malevolence. The role is a speaking rather than a singing one but Lau delivered his lines so convincingly that his every inflection sounded as though they were pitched. 

Helena, Lysander, Hermia, Demetrius (L to R, foreground)

The four Lovers were commendable in their ensemble of interweaving lines which Britten wrote to mirror Shakespeare’s web of attraction and unrequited affection. But while mostly delightful to listen to, the singers tonight were hardly believable as passionate, lovesick Athenians, though the women were definitely stronger (do we sense a pattern here?). Rebecca Chellappah was a petulant, diva-esque Hermia, while Jennifer Lien (almost physically unrecognizable in the role) was a pitiably desperate Helena; their catfight was certainly most entertaining. The Lover’s quartet – after all but one enchantment had been reversed – is one of the opera’s musical high points but it unfortunately exposed Shaun Lee’s Lysander as its weakest link.

The Rustics

The Rustics (Bottom et al) are the comedic foil to the Lovers’ despair, and one can very well imagine the six men holding their own in a spin-off operetta. Besides the vocally majestic Sangchul Jea as Bottom who becomes the object of Tytania’s amorous attentions, the other Rustic who stood out was Adrian Poon who hammed it up as Flute – complete with coy cross-dressing in his role-within-a-role, Thisby. Special mention must also be made of the droll, deliberately tune-less Samuel Ng as the Wall in the play-within-a-play, Pyramus and Thisby, which parodied a whole host of operatic clichés. It was that very highly entertaining slapstick “play” in Act 3 that incited spontaneous chuckles from the audience.

The set was a simple one, without any need for gold leaves or massive structures which are often unnecessary and even distracting. The simple yet ingenious use of a set of detachable ramps fittingly placed the actors and music in the foreground of the performance. It was a pity though, that New Opera Singapore did not go all the way in their attempt to give the tale a local setting. Apart from the Lovers’ contemporary dress and mobile phones popping up every now and then, there was little else to suggest modernisation.

The fairies may have brandished flower juice to create all sorts of magic, but it was truly Music Director Chan Wei Shing’s baton and his 32-strong orchestra which enveloped the production in Britten’s exquisite sound-world. Britten’s score cleverly represents each group of characters with a different ensemble of instruments. In this production, the mythical fairy realm is painted with ethereal colours from the keyboard disguised as harpsichord and celesta, while the Rustics are brought to life with woodwind and brass. It is the Lovers’ songs, however, for which the crowning enchantment of string-led melodies is reserved. With some of Singapore’s best musicians in the orchestra, every solo – from string and harp to timpani and off-stage brass – added to the lush layers of voices telling the story.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been a favourite Shakespearean play for many, but now it looks as though Britten’s – and New Opera’s – intoxicating reimagination of the mythical tale could be the one that has swept into the audience’s (sub)consciousness.

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