Monday, 19 August 2019

BENJAMIN BRITTEN A Midsummer Night's Dream / New Opera Singapore / Review

New Opera Singapore
Victoria Theatre
Friday (16 August 2019)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 19 August 2019 with the title "Fantasy and hilarity rule the night".

It has been 22 years since Benjamin Britten’s operatic setting of Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream last played in Singapore. In 1997, Singapore Lyric Opera mounted a production, with a largely foreign cast of singers and conducted by Lim Yau, which remains one of the company’s most remarkable achievements.

Although trailing in authenticity and refinement, New Opera Singapore’s production with a largely local cast, directed by Jeong Ae Ree and conducted by Chan Wei Shing, was nonetheless impressive for its freshness of ideas and ebullience of delivery.

Britten’s adaptation of Shakespeare saw its original five acts reduced to three, with the First Act dispensed altogether. Much of the libretto remained unchanged, thus retaining much of the humour and farce. Its story of fairies, humans and actors (here called rustics), their falling in and out of love, and mistakenly applied “love” juice, made for much fantasy and enchantment.

Soprano Victoria Songwei Li, returning from last year’s triumph in Poulenc’s Dialogues Of The Carmelites, was just as stunning in the coloratura role of Tytania. The range and agility of her voice was matched by an alluring physical presence that was hard to ignore. Coming quite close was actor Dwayne Lau Wei An as the playful Puck, prancing opposite countertenor Glenn Wong as the tyrannical Oberon.

The mortals Helena (sang by Jennifer Lien), Hermia (Rebecca Chellappah), Lysander (Shaun Lee), Demetrius (Kang Mingseong) as subjects of love were also well cast, especially the women. The rustics, comprising Bottom (Sangchul Jae), Quince (Keane Ong), Flute (Adrian Poon), Snout (Samuel Ng), Starveling (Francis Wong) and Snug (David Lee), who were planning a play within a play, provided further comic elements to an already hilarious script.

Although singing and speaking in English, not all the words were clearly enunciated and heard. The Korean singers were at a disadvantage here, made more difficult when wearing the headpiece of an ass. As such, the smart use of surtitles proved all the more vital.

The all-boys choir from Anglo Chinese School (Junior & Barker Road) provided the atmosphere of innocence which Britten sought. Mingling among them were the fairies Jasmine Towndrow (Moth), Lara Tan (Peaseblossom), Melissa Hecker (Cobweb) and Yssela Erquiaga (Mustardseed), youngsters who aquitted themselves with purity and grace.

The set made up from detachable and mobile ramps of different heights, designed by RT+Q Architects, was simple and highly effective. This allowed for clarity of story-telling on different planes besides preventing a cramped stage. Consistent with the company’s penchant for the edgy and slightly risque, there were scenes of cross-dressing (Poon as the awkward bride Thisby) and the hinting of bestiality (woman and ass).

New Opera Singapore has overachieved again, given its small budget that allows for just one major production annually. Next year sees the Singapore premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, and expectations already run high.  

All photographs by the kind courtesy of New Opera Singapore.

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