When opera lovers talk, several basic truths usually bubble up:
Twentieth-century composer Benjamin Britten’s operas are more respected than loved.
Putting Shakespeare to music is theatrical sky diving. If the chute isn’t packed just right, you’re going to have a horrible trip down, and it will be excruciatingly long.
The only opera to put your kids in is that huge Montmartre market scene from “La Boheme.”
Last weekend, Opera Naples tramped all three truisms in presenting Britten’s adaptation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Although we still appreciate the opera’s otherworldly harmonies more than dote on them, the sleek Opera Naples production went a long way toward changing our attitude on all counts.
It speaks to the company’s commitment to opera that it even produced “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” a work fraught with shifting tempos, difficult harmonics and orchestral challenges. The extensive cast requirements — 15 soloists — and
fairy groupings, which add 15 children with singing roles, have scared off larger companies.
The orchestral music, too, is a special challenge that Conductor Richard Bernas and the Opera Naples musicians fearlessly mastered. The orchestra worked its own ethereal magic on the woozy string portamento opening and jumped in with nattering wind and horn phrases, crowned with Wendy Willis’ superbly wild flute solo during the triumphal reunion sextet. Both, by the way, are homages to Donizetti, and other viewing may pick out some other coyly embedded devices.
Possibly the biggest sacrifice the company made in the name of art, however, was knowing it could be upstaged by the one character who doesn’t sing. David Tanciar is astounding as Puck, backflipping into his entrance, doing handsprings over set pieces and generally infusing impish delight into every scene he’s in. Thanks to the costuming of contemporary theater veteran Anna Alisa Belous, his looks are as exclamatory as his dialogue: spiked blue hair, polka dot tights and a fluorescent tank with peacock-blue vest.
The burden is huge here on the characters, and Opera Naples casting was definitive. Even picking your way through YouTube vignettes, you’re unlikely to find a countertenor better wearing the majestic role of Oberon than John Gaston, with the looks of a caliph and a voice blending both higher register and masculinity.
Heather Buck as his queen, Tytania, has glorious coloratura and a regal presence — even her long-stemmed finger movements are moments of grace. Unfortunately, little of what she sang was intelligible, despite the fact the production was in English.
Worse, for those at the Sunday afternoon production, sunlight on the walls of Miromar Design Center blocked out any hope of supertitles for the entire first act.
Otherwise, the center became a clever space for opera with Sam Vasquez’s minimal sets, creating portable fabric covered blocks as walls, having the theater troupe carry in the banquette that would become a forest ledge and using its atrium levels for balconies and sky. Young fairies pop up overhead to intone the opening, and even “red-hipped honeybees” soar over the heads of the audience, thanks to strategically placed nylon line.
Cecil Mackinnon’s staging is creative, and Opera Naples Artist Director Steffanie Pearce wisely suggested in her introduction that the audience check their positions for turnability. Actors were arriving from the rear and sides of the hall, sometimes within inches of a seat.
These stars suffered not one whit at close range. Julie-Anne Hamula (Helena) and Adrienne Blanks (Hermia) owned their roles as the embattled sweethearts who both lose and win their loves in the course of one night.
The working-class theater troupe, outfitted in red coveralls with hardhats, brooms or punchlists, challenge Puck as show stealers. Andrew Gray is a comically astute Nick Bottom, infusing his vocals with brays after Puck saddles him with an ass’s head as a joke. And it didn’t hurt to have among them John McKerrow, founder of the local Shakespeare in Paradise.
The young fairies, a cadre of kids in wings and prints, rate special praise for their mastery — thanks to chorus director Robin Shuford Frank — of the difficult harmonies in their closing aria.
You have to bless Britten for abridging the bard; the original play is in five acts. That it has been simmered down to two was not enough for some people, who decamped at intermission.
They can have the original; we’ll take this one any day.
Harriet Howard Heithaus writes about classical music and dance for the Naples Daily News. Did you see “A Midsummer Night’s Dream?” Tell me what you thought; firstname.lastname@example.org.