On several levels, Peabody Opera Theatre accomplished a great deal with its production of Britten's "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
The staging by Garnett Bruce was consistently engaging, with plenty of humor and enough sensitivity for work's ethereal side. The student cast acquitted itself well, in some cases remarkably well. And, most impressive of all, things were really cooking in the pit (I attended Saturday), with Hajime Teri Murai coaxing careful, subtly colorful work from the Peabody Concert Orchestra all night.
In a good move, the performance started without the usual conductor-enters-to-applause practice. Instead, once the lights went down and the audience quieted, Murai (having snuck in, I guess) let the wonderfully murky opening music slowly bubble up as if from some subterranean realm.
The sensitive playing of that passage gave notice of how much of an asset the orchestra was going to be. The superbly controlled fade-outs at the end of the first two acts likewise proved special; many a professional ensemble would envy those pianissimos.
Onstage, the strengths started with countertenor Daniel Moody as Oberon. The combination of his evenly projected tone, nuanced phrasing and excellent diction yielded consistent pleasure. Alex Rosen was another standout as Bottom, offering a solid, colorful voice and plenty of dynamic acting (including a long stint underneath a pretty cool donkey's head -- the whole show was nicely costumed).
A very promising soprano, Amanda Williams (Helena), spun out some of the evening's warmest tones. Wenhui Xu likewise showed a good deal of promise as Tytania.
The rest of the vocal soloists demonstrated a wide range of technical levels, but got into the spirit of things with a consistency of purpose. The fairy chorus sounded nice and sweet. Brieann Pasko cavorted nimbly in the speaking role of Puck. Having a real dog onstage is always a risk, but the cute one used here proved quite a trouper.
Although the barebones set left much to the imagination, Bruce made the best of it with finely paced action. He put a particularly effective spin on the play that Bottom and the other rustics put on in Act 3. It had so much fun, well-executed shtick that it was was to easy to forget that Britten made the scene just a little too long for its own good.
The same might be said about other spots in the work, but, as Peabody's affectionate production reconfirmed, this really is a rare gem of an opera. You might even say a dream.