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A Midsummer Night's Romp

August 12, 2008

There are few plays as firmly in charge of their own stage destiny as Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream. It's all in the text, of course, but also in the style of the piece, with its shimmering, playful way of intermingling spirits and mortals. Significant alteration is not really feasible, so writers and composers must follow Master William's playbook.

Kurt Krikorian as Puck, William Sauerland as Oberon

Photos by Robert Shomler

Festival Opera, with its obviously limited resources, did very well serving the Dream at its Saturday opening at Walnut Creek's Hofmann Theater, led by Peter Crompton's Beijing Olympics wannabe spheres and globes stretching upstage, with Puck flying hither and yon (the athletic Kurt Wolfgang Krikorian taking possession of the speaking role), and with Susanna Douthit's grunge-fairyland costumes fitting the teen and preteen fairies well.

Fairies, sprites, et al., around Puck

The opera version (to a libretto by Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears) favors the rustics more than the play. Their rehearsal and performance of the play of Pyramus and Thisbe takes up as much time as the rest of the action. And the four pairs of lovers (Oberon-Tytania, Theseus-Hippolyta, Lysander-Hermia, and Demetrius-Helena) handle their spats and bliss in short order.

Jorge Garza as Lysander, Jessica Mariko Deardorff as Hermia

Conducted and directed by Michael Morgan, the opera's romantic first act, comic second act, and all-out carnival third act flew by, entertaining and delightful. Codirector and choreographer Mark Foehringer contributed decisively to the action — and there was lots of it. If the music falls somewhat short of the gravitas of other Britten works, mark that up to the nature of the piece. Musically, there are only a few sweet, Mendelssohnian moments. Mostly it's a lithe soundtrack accompanying the action, albeit it's a score by Britten, every inch of it.

Bottom, transformed

Vocally, countertenor William Sauerland's quiet, self-assured Oberon and Kirk Eichelberger's Godunov-sized Bottom dominated the performance. Sauerland, formerly of Chanticleer, but now singing in London, was made to look like the Little Prince's older brother. That didn't harm the performance, but his frequently debilitated stage manners did.

Ani Maldjian stepped into the role of Tytania, replacing the originally scheduled Marnie Breckenridge, and made a strong impression both dramatically and vocally, showing the making of a "helden-soprano" (if there is such a fach).

Ani Maldjian as Tytania, William Sauerland as Oberon

The pairs of human lovers all sang well individually, and showed good chemistry together: Tenor Jorge Garza's Lysander wooed mezzo Jessica Mariko Deardorff's Hermia, and baritone Nikolas Nackley's Demetrius had a passionate switch from loathing to loving vis-à-vis soprano Stacey Cornell's Helena.

Kirk Eichelberger as Bottom (center) with Jonathan Smucker (Flute), Joshua Elder (Starveling), Trey Costerisan (Snout), John Bischoff (Snug)

The rustics were all present and cutting up well, including John Minágro's strangely costumed Quince (streetcar driver? Foreign Legion soldier?). Jonathan Smucker (as Flute-Thisby), Joshua Elder (Starveling-mother), Trey Costerisan (Snout-father), and John Bischoff (Snug-lion) sang or roared or made wall-noises appropriately. In the final scene, Igor Vieira's Theseus was fine, but Lauren Groff's Hippolyta appeared misdirected in her world-weary, juvenile affectation.

The chorus of fairies, and so on — very young, totally dedicated — was outstanding, led by Katie Behnke (Mustardseed), Chelsea Lyons (Cobweb), Jennifer Kwock-Lau (Moth), and Lori Rogala (Peaseblossom).

Bottom, incidentally has the best possible advice to young singers: "I will not stir from this place, do what they can: I will walk up and down here, and I will sing, that they shall hear I am not afraid."

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].