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VOL. 126 | NO. 20 | Monday, January 31, 2011

Review: ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’

JONATHAN DEVIN | Special to The Memphis News

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If art is about risk-taking, the joint production of Michael Ching’s opera a capella “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by Opera Memphis, Playhouse on the Square and Delta Capella/RIVA risks about as much as one show possible can.

Kyle Huey as Puck and Kristin Vienneau as Peaseblossom. (Photo: Courtesy of Sean Davis and Opera Memphis)

My thought before leaving to see the opening night performance is that the production would either be an artistic apotheosis or a big hot mess. That’s because the three groups collaborating on the production use three very different vocal styles – opera, musical theater and a capella – to tell the story of three different groups: paired Athenian lovers, a band a feuding fairies and laborers rehearsing a play for a duke’s wedding.

It’s a lot to put on one stage and that begs a big question: will the groups and styles blend enough to become one unified show, or will it come off as a collection of skits in a Shakespearian Vaudeville act?

But then this is Ching we’re talking about, an artist whose genius brought creative experiments to Opera Memphis in the past with awe-striking and under-appreciated results.

If anyone could pull off a production this complex, Ching would be the person to wager on.

In the end “Midsummer” was neither an apex nor a disaster, though it had moments of sublime magic and wasted attempts at humor. Of course, ultimately any judgment of the opera will be extremely subjective because no one has ever done anything like this before.

First it must be said that Ching achieved his goal of telling the rather complicated story of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with the clarity, dignity and beauty of Shakespeare’s original language, a feat in and of itself because operatic singing can be difficult to understand even in English. The complexity of the plot fell easily into place allowing the libretto to take center stage rather than the kind of high volume/high drama music that attracts most opera audiences.

The intimacy of Playhouse on the Square was the perfect setting for the piece, bringing the entire cast within a stone’s throw of the audience and allowing them to direct facial expressions and physical acting right into a crowd that was energized early on to receive it.

The “voicestra,” made up of Delta Capella (male) and RIVA (female) members in the orchestra pit, amazingly, sang almost nonstop for two hours, conducted by Curtis Tucker, without the slightest hint of waning in tone, pitch or energy. But the difficulty with this production is in tying together the very solid elements that comprise it: the storytelling, the music and the cast of about 20 people coming from very different performance backgrounds.

Ching did not write an overture to the opera, most likely because he knew the voicestra would be taxed plenty throughout the show as it is. But even a brief overture might have helped audiences ready themselves for the differences in sound once the operatic singers took the stage. Instead, for a few minutes, it sounded as if the operatic singers were shouting over a Manhattan Transfer CD.

Jennifer Goode Cooper, double cast as Titania and Hippolyta, was a joy to listen to. Just shy of her New York City Opera debut, she stole the spotlight every time she stepped on stage, particularly when as Titania she serenaded the donkey-eared Bottom in her crystalline soprano voice at the end of Act I.

But the confused Athenian lovers were mismatched. Robert Legge as Demetrius and John Dooley as Lysander are opera singers while their female counterparts, Emily Bodkin as Helena and Laura Stracko as Hermia were trained in musical theater. Both women carry their own weight vocally, but the men had to reign in their sound to keep from overshadowing them – and it showed.

Solos by Delta Capella/RIVA members on stage as the “mechanicals” seemed to give up on tone quality altogether in favor of sight gags and laugh lines, which I’d argue, the show didn’t really need.

Shakespeare’s mechanicals are ridden with stage fright, but Ching’s pranced clumsily around the stage sporting questionable parodies to borrowed bits of music from the William Tell Overture and the love theme from “Romeo and Juliet.” Thisbe’s (Thomas King) solo set to the tune of “You are Sixteen, Going on Seventeen” from “The Sound of Music” was one moment I wish had hit the editing room floor.

But then other individual performances overcame the circus atmosphere and created incredible moments of lightning-stark art. Heather Jenkins as the fairy soloist brought ethereal beauty to Titania’s bower with a handful of simple, high-pitched melodies that sounded like fairy sighs. Jeremiah Johnson’s (Theseus/Oberon) aria at the beginning of Act II gave the production a welcomed reprieve from silliness with a dose of poised, masculine seriousness. Kyle Huey as Puck was all over the map, providing a highly entertaining role certainly, but one that might have benefited from a more operatic and less musical theater treatment.

All that said, it is a pleasure and honor to watch Ching’s imagination at play, something we in Memphis may not get to enjoy again now that he has moved to Iowa. Those who miss this production will have lost out on seeing firsthand the inner working of a master artist whose brilliance will be celebrated by the world someday.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” runs through Feb. 13.

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