The extreme disappointment I felt after first watching this Midsummer Night's Dream has been tempered a little by subsequent viewings, but there is no doubt in my mind that this is a seriously flawed performance.
With a couple of key exceptions which I'll get to in a minute, it's hard to blame individual performers. They range from quite good to superb. Top prize goes to Damien Nash, whose impish looks and voice set a benchmark for the role of Puck. He is far better than the rather plummy and stiff Stephen Terry in the old 1960 recording conducted by the composer. The lovers acquit themselves well, particularly Cynthia Buchan in the role of Hermia and Felicity Lott as Helena. Their Act 2 scrap is appropriately catty, hard as it is to imagine anyone taking exception to the ever-delightful Flott. Lieuwe Visser and Claire Powell perform well in the small parts of Theseus and Hippolyta, somewhat less stuffy than John Shirley-Quirk and Helen Watts in the 1960 recording. Individually the Rustics are fine, Curt Appelgren as Bottom and Patrick Power as Flute deserving special mention. Power makes more of Flute/Thisbe than the standard drag queen portrayal and Appelgren gives us a Pyramus/Bottom who calls for sympathy as well as laughter.
As far as perfomances are concerned, it's the fairies who let the side down (Puck excepted), starting with Oberon and Tytania. James Bowman's Oberon, hooting out of the forest, has the range of vocal and visual expression of a stuffed owl. Ileana Cotrubas seems to believe Tytania is producing a toothpaste commercial. Time flies in lead boots when either is on stage. Go to Deller and Harwood in the old Britten recording to hear how these roles should be sung, and unless your imagination is completely atrophied you'll summon up visions that are far superior to what is on show here. As for the rest of the fairy crew, we get to one of the serious weaknesses of this performance.
This is a 1981 recording, and opera videos have come a million miles since then. Directors realize that what passes for acting from a distance of 50 feet or more, does not escape the scrutiny of the camera. Whether through over-rehearsal or just because boys will be boys, this set of fairies is the least inspired, most transparently bored you will ever come across in this world or the next. The camera occasionally zooms in on the face of some boy who would patently rather be kicking a ball around outside just then. Only at the very end, as they file out singing "With this field-dew consecrate" does the camera catch anything remotely impish, one fairy deliberately casting his field dew in the face of the fairy behind him.
In fact the whole production is distinctly earthbound, a fault to which designer, director and conductor can jointly lay claim. The essence of this opera is light and shade, contrast between court, fairy kingdom and rustics, between summer's night and day, between dreams and wakefulness. This light and shade, the magic of a midsummer's night, should be an interplay between visuals and music throughout the opera. But here we have monochromatic sets (yes, I know it's night, but ............) supported by monochromatic music. Haitink plods through the score. Rhythms are slack, instrumental colour is subdued. The duetting between instrument and voice, witty give and take that is such a feature of the 1960 recording, is almost totally absent here. Important details are lost. For one of a hundred examples, listen in vain for the screaming modulation that accompanies Demetrius's impassioned wooing of Helena in Act 2, so spine-tingling in the old recording, so under-stated here.
If Haitink's conducting is somnolent, Peter Hall's directing hardly helps. After the long, atmospheric introduction to Act 2 the Rustics wander onto the stage like spectators at loose ends during the half time interval of a boring football match. The scene that follows, for which Shakespeare provides acres of potentially comic material, is leaden.
Surely, in an opera so full of fantasy, imagination will inspire set design to run riot? No. The one concession to fantasy - moving trees - fails comically. What may work on stage is redolent of nothing so much as unsavoury men in trenchcoats at camera range as we pick out shadowy stagehands redistributing the foliage.
And we search in vain for visual communication between performers. Seldom do they speak to eachother instead of singing out into the auditorium, turning this most interactive of operas into something like a cantata.
No, I would far sooner listen to the 1960 Aldeburgh performance and let my imagination fill in the visuals. Britten's conducting is in a totally different league to Haitink's. I have not seen the other DVD versions of Midsummer Night's Dream, but I know this opera very well and to me this version sells it sadly short.