For years, Peabody Opera Theatre has made valuable contributions to the city's cultural life. That is especially true when the company turns to repertoire that gets little attention here, as in the case of this season’s focus on two mid-century masterpieces.
Last fall, there was a production of Francis Poulenc's "Dialogues of the Carmelites" from 1957, its first local staging since the old Baltimore Opera Company presented it nearly three decades earlier. This week, Peabody Opera revisits Benjamin Britten's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," a 1960 work the troupe last performed 13 years ago. (As far as I can tell, Britten never made it onto Baltimore Opera's radar.)
"Midsummer," adapted from the Shakespeare play by Britten and his lifelong partner, tenor Peter Pears, presents any number of challenges for an opera company, starting with the casting requirements.
The role of Oberon, King of the Fairies, is written for countertenor — Britten recognized in that falsetto voice an ideal sound for an unearthly character.
There was apparently something of a shortage in that voice type when Peabody tackled the opera in 2001. Oberon was sung by a baritone who, at key moments, slipped into falsetto to provide a taste of what the composer intended. This time, the real thing.
"We are blessed with two countertenors at the conservatory," says Garnett Bruce, who is directing the Peabody production. "And when you've got a countertenor in your stable, you want to give that horse a chance to ride."
"Midsummer" also fits with another goal at Peabody Opera this season — producing pieces that are not mostly about solo singing. "Dialogues of the Carmelites," for example, a story of doomed nuns during the French Revolution, calls for an ensemble of well-matched women's voices.
Ensembles are key to the Britten piece, too, with its quartet of lovers and a comic sextet of laborers — the "rude mechanicals" as Shakespeare has it, dubbed "rustics" by Britten.
What helps to give "Midsummer" its musical and theatrical power is the way Britten distinguishes among those two groups and the story's third layer, the fairy characters. There is specific orchestral coloring for each.
Strings and woodwinds support the lovers; the rustics get lots of bassoon and low brass; harp, celesta and other ethereal sounds surround the fairies. The imp Puck, a speaking role, is backed up by trumpet and drums.
The composer has particular fun with the rustics. When the weaver Bottom ends up wearing the head of a donkey, "the orchestra brays in such a lovely way," Bruce says. And when the rustics put on a show, "Pyramus and Thisbe," for the court of the Duke of Athens, Britten turns that scene into a wry parody of Donizetti operas.
Alex Rosen, a senior at Peabody who made admirable effective contributions to the conservatory's productions of Mozart's "Don Giovanni" and Massenet's "Manon" in recent years, will sing the role of Bottom.
"So many bass roles are stuffy old men," Rosen says. “Bottom is not a typical bass role. You get to do a lot of different things with it. It's a challenge to sing with that donkey's head on, but they've made [the costume] as awesome and comfortable as possible."
This is Rosen's first performance of “Midsummer.”
"I love the sound-worlds in this opera," the singer says. "You could almost close your eyes and still see these worlds unfold before you. You've got Oberon singing all this cool chromatic stuff that has your skin crawling. The rustics get the funniest stuff, as well as a lot of beautiful music."
The look of the Peabody production will be traditional.
"There have been a lot of modern settings, but I think some of the mystery is lost when you do that," says Bruce. "This one is Elizabethan, which allows for a certain grandeur of costuming."
In guiding the production, Bruce had in the back of his mind something said by eminent British director Peter Hall, who has staged Shakespeare’s and Britten's "Midsummer."
"He said the difference between them is that in Britten's version there is no love," Bruce says. "One of my goals is to perhaps prove him wrong, to find love, and what is lovely, in this opera."