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Britten: A Midsummer Night's Dream / Volkov, Rose, Mehta, Martinez

Release Date: 11/15/2011 
Label:  Glyndebourne Festival Opera   Catalog #: 13  
Composer:  Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Jack MorlenKate RoyalIride MartinezMatthew Rose,   ... 
Conductor:  Ilan Volkov
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Philharmonic OrchestraTrinity Boys' Choir
Number of Discs: 2 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BRITTEN A Midsummer Night’s Dream Ilan Volkov, cond; Bejun Mehta ( Oberon ); ?ride Martinez ( Titania ); Jack Morlen ( Puck ); Timothy Robinson ( Lysander ); Jared Holt ( Demetrius ); Tove Dahlberg ( Hermia ); Kate Royal ( Read more class="ARIAL12i">Helena ); Iain Paterson ( Theseus ); Matthew Rose ( Bottom ); Henry Waddington ( Quince ); Michael Smallwood ( Flute ); Geoffrey Moses ( Snug ); Trinity Boys’ Ch; London PO GLYNDEBOURNE 13-06 (2 CDs: 148:40 Text and Translation) Live: Glyndebourne 7–8/2006

Some people ignore, or tend not to believe, that our tastes usually change as we age. When I was in my 20s and 30s, I was a huge fan of bel canto opera, ranging from the era of Handel, Vivaldi, and Hasse through the age of Rossini, Donizetti, and early Verdi. Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream was not music that I could relate to, let alone enjoy; but as time went on, I began to realize how empty were the continuous runs, trills, roulades, and fiddly-bits of bel canto opera and how much more substance there was to this work of Britten (not to mention myriad other works I had previously ignored or not enjoyed).

Thus, by the time this recording came my way for review, I had become perhaps no expert on this opera but certainly conversant with its many subtleties, including the underlying humor of the music itself. This rather breaks out in the last act as the “mechanicals” put on their wretched little presentation of the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe. Here Britten, who apparently had always loathed bel canto opera, unleashes some of the most wicked parodies of this style since Arthur Sullivan died (you see, there is a connection between this work and bel canto!). It has been said, almost from the time of the opera’s premiere, that Peter Pears actually helped Britten compose this opera because the latter was going through a mental block at the time. Whatever the truth, there is no question that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is unique in Britten’s output. He never wrote anything remotely like it before or after.

I will give you yet another musical truth, which I began to discover when I was in my late 20s: that the most famous or highest-regarded names in the classical-music business, whether soprano, tenor, pianist, cellist, or conductor, do not always give, or guarantee, the finest performances of music. Oh, sure, some are as dependable as the day is long—Lipatti, Menuhin, Vickers, Nagano, etc.—yet even here you will find performances that are not quite up to their usual level. I mention this because, for decades, Colin Davis was very highly regarded as a Britten interpreter (as he was, also, a Berlioz interpreter), and for the past 15 years my benchmark in this opera was his recording of it with Sylvia McNair, Brian Asawa, John Mark Ainsley, and Janice Watson (Philips 454122), but I have returned from Planet Glyndebourne to tell you that this is no longer entirely the case.

With the sole exception of ?ride Martinez as Titania, whose voice is somewhat shriller and more brittle than McNair’s (not altogether a bad thing, as I shall soon discuss), this conductor, completely unknown to me, and this cast, of whom I only recognize the names of Bejun Mehta and Kate Royal, are considerably better than Colin Davis and his then-all-star forces. Moreover, due to the live recording venue, this performance has far more atmosphere than the Davis recording, which makes it closer in feeling to Britten’s own recording on Decca (which I never liked because countertenor Alfred Deller was too long in the tooth when it was made).

Ilan Volkov not only keeps the music flowing in a forward momentum that sometimes eludes Davis, but the wider dynamic range and greater resonance of this recording elicits orchestral details that pass unnoticed in the Davis set. Mehta sings with a more beautiful tone and much clearer diction than Asawa, his counterpart on the Davis recording, and considering that in this opera Titania is presented as something of a shrew, Martinez’s more brilliant, slightly harder voice is entirely appropriate to the role. (In fact, if you go back and listen to the Davis recording, you’ll notice that he had McNair sing with more hardness and push in the voice than she normally did for that very reason.)

Timothy Robinson is surely the equal of Ainsley as Lysander, and Matthew Rose and Michael Smallwood are superb as Bottom and Flute. Kate Royal, then at the beginning of her now-famed career, sings gloriously as Helena. Moreover, the Trinity Boys’ Choir, which supplied the voices of all the pint-sized fairies, is at the top of their game here. (Indeed, one reviewer for the Daily Telegraph singled out the members of the choir as the vocal stars of this production.) Yet, alas, there is a fly in the ointment here, and ultimately it makes me uneasy about recommending this set.

The problem is the sound. In an opera where the words are so very important, the distance between microphone and singers is often too great to hear them clearly. (Mehta, who sounds as if he was consistently closer to the mic, is the only one whose diction is almost always clear.) You can hear more by listening through headphones, but I see no reason why you should sacrifice the pleasure of listening to an opera through speakers if you so choose. Conversely, clarity of diction is one of the hallmarks of the Davis set, and in that respect it still pleases lo these many years later. If not understanding the words is not a handicap for you, this is surely the preferred version; if it is, you might want to get it as an alternate if you feel you want two recordings of this opera in your collection.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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Works on This Recording

A Midsummer Night's Dream, Op. 64 by Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Jack Morlen (Speaker), Kate Royal (Soprano), Iride Martinez (Soprano),
Matthew Rose (Bass), Bejun Mehta (Countertenor), Jared Holt (Tenor),
Tove Dahlberg (Mezzo Soprano), Timothy Robinson (Tenor)
Conductor:  Ilan Volkov
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Philharmonic Orchestra,  Trinity Boys' Choir
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1960; England 

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