By Rebecca Percival
A Midsummer Night’s Dream was my first experience of Durham Opera Ensemble (DOE) and, indeed, opera in Durham. Despite being an avid fan, I’ve never seen any opera that was especially modern. The fact that this particular production is performed in English was something that excited me, and should appeal to those looking for an introduction to opera, as it proved not just to be accessible, but truly enchanting.
There was palpable excitement in the audience before the production even started, which was welcoming. Well attended and well supported, the atmosphere was promising; the audience visibly couldn’t wait for the show to begin. As soon as the lights went down, silence commenced and the curtains opened to a spectacular setting. Certainly the most professional staging I’ve seen so far, it was mesmerising. Credit should be given to the lighting team, as the stage was always bathed in an appropriate light. Without wanting to call it ‘mood lighting’, the ambience complimented and supported the emotions throughout the opera. It was extremely clever, and touches like this were subtle but appreciated. Similarly, smoke drifted around the stage, catching the light and giving an extra otherworldly quality that complimented the magic of the performance, working especially well in the fairy scenes.
The beginning felt a little insecure, and it took a while for me to adapt to the costumes onstage, which were fairly modern in comparison to the otherwise traditional setting. The dancing, though generally very well-choreographed throughout the play, began a bit shakily – although this got steadily better. Oberon (Lewis Cullen) surprised me with his opening solo, having an unusually high voice, but this merely added to the ethereal quality of his character. Later, having gained some confidence after the opening scene, he really began to shine and played a slightly eccentric fairy king very well. Meanwhile, Lysander (Laurence Kilsby) had a fantastic voice that unfortunately was lost a bit within the music, to begin with. Another audience member commented that at times he forgot he was listening to an English opera, as the words were not always well articulated, yet this could be down to nerves. This problem could easily be forgiven, as in the Second Act, it seemed to fix itself and projection was greatly improved.
Tytania (Rowena Ashby) struggled occasionally, but for the most part was every bit the ethereal fairy queen she was supposed to be. In fairness, she certainly had some of the most challenging vocal parts in the whole production. Her extended scene with Bottom (Julian Purdy) was highly impressive and displayed some really awe-inspiring vocal capabilities. Both of the female lovers, Helena (Emer Acton) and Hermia (Amy Porter) were very good. The cast was well chosen: how I imagined the characters aesthetically, while still remaining brilliant vocally.
Yet, the most notable performances came from Puck (Alabama Jackson) and Bottom. Jackson’s boundless, unrelenting energy brought her character to life and gave a true vitality to the play; whilst Purdy’s portrayal of Bottom was something else. His stage presence was astounding and seemed at times truly professional. He was funny, arrogant and hugely polished. He excelled.
Overall, the play was brilliant. It contained convincing moments of anguish and love, whilst simultaneously providing refreshing comic relief. The National Park employees, in particular, Bottom and Flute (Llewelyn Cross), who played Thisbe in the meta-play, were hilarious. Further, some of the visuals were truly stunning. A sleeping Tytania bathed in blue light, surrounded by flickering tea lights, presented an almost painting-like vision for the audience. It was a fitting scene to end Act One: one of beauty and ethereal majesty.
Visually, it was sensational; vocally, it was tremendous. If Shakespeare had commissioned one of his most-loved comedies as an opera, I’m sure he would have enjoyed it as much as me.
‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ will be performed at the Gala Theatre from Friday, 17th February until Saturday 18th February at 19:30. Book your tickets here.