'Midsummer night's Dream' beguiling and beautifully performed

In its ongoing quest to bring new fans to the opera and to keep its current fans appealed, the Virginia Opera Association brought Benjamin Britten’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” to the Carpenter Center Sunday. And it was as delightful as the Shakespearean tale.

Exploring the craziness of love and the lengths to which people go to find it, the “Dream” applies Britten’s unique musical style to Shakespeare’s fairy tale (left mostly intact in the adaptation by Britten and Peter Pears) with fanciful results.

The opera, faithful to the play, has a large cast. That equates to 15 singers, which equates to a big undertaking. In creating musical characterizations in character with the play, Britten developed music that thematically embraces “Dream’s” grouping of lovers, rustic folk and fairies. He did this by drawing on a spectrum of styles ranging from Baroque to things in the atonal realm, all wrapped up in one delightful package.

Given the nature of the comedy and the action that passes from one character to the next, there are essentially no principals, except, possibly by rank as the king and queen of the fairies, Oberon and Tytania around whom action swirls.

Since the labor of operatic love is equitably shared, it’s important that all be strong singers. Toward this end, the VOA succeeded. Here, there was nary a weak link. To the person, all splendidly carried out Britten’s largely non-linear lines with distinction.

It’s unfair to mention some and not all since all were so fine. But, it is worth noting that Owen Willetts was of note in that he was one of the few countertenors we’ve heard under VOA. His silky sound fell easily on the ear and added a touch of the unusual in his Oberon who was costumed and cast as somewhat menacing, conniving and eerie, dressed in black leather, mostly shirtless with a giant chest tattoo, and evil looking makeup. As his Tytania, Heather Buck displayed a stunningly glittering soprano that matched her equally glittering costume. Buck’s ability to float ethereal sounds effortlessly and delicately added magic to proceedings.

Based on curtain call reception and the order in which the calls were taken, the star, such as it would seem, was bass-baritone Matthew Burns as the rustic weaver, Bottom, the fellow who ends up in the donkey’s head and cozying up with Tytania. Matching his fine voice was his comic timing that was grin-producing, even adorable, an adjective I don’t recall ever having used to describe anything.

As for comedy, it was rampant throughout this Michael Shell-directed effort. Whether or not the singers are naturally amusing is an unknown. But all embraced all things comedic wholeheartedly, especially the rustics who put on the silly “Pyramus and Thisbe” play within the play. These fellows were truly funny, laugh out loud funny, Bille Bruley drawing his due share of chuckles as Thisbe, in silly drag. Totally delightful.

In a non singing role of the mischievous Puck was dancer-actor Morgan White, whose athletic jumps, twists and turns added great joy to comedy and enhanced the ensemble. Student singers from the Governor’s School for the Arts Vocal Program took on the chorus of fairies, delivering mature sounding results and purposeful stage movement.

Shoko Kambara’s design was sparse but clever. Using constantly moving panels of curtains, enlivened by Driscoll Otto’s effective lighting, and interesting projections, Kambara developed a sense of expansiveness that was visually engaging.

Adam Turner’s turn at the score was exemplary, especially given it’s not an easy one to maneuver. Much of it plays directly to visual capers on stage, in the way of tone painting that expands characterizations. Timing had to be perfect. And it was, as was the playing of the Virginia Symphony throughout, thus helping craft a very crafty and magical “Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Shulson, a Williamsburg resident, has been covering the arts for over 40 years. He makes a guest appearance in Margaret Truman's "Murder at the Opera."

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