The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra could have included just a little sample of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" to go with its latest program, which includes the overture and incidental music Mendelssohn wrote under the spell of that play. But this is an all-out production, and a beguiling one at that.
Created in association with Washington's superb Folger Theatre, the semi-staged presentation, cleverly adapted and directed by Edward Berkeley, provides a generous helping of "Midsummer." And as the story of fairies and foolish mortals unfolds, the theatrical elements are seamlessly integrated with Mendelssohn's exquisitely crafted score.
On Thursday night at the Music Center at Strathmore, a vibrant, versatile cast -- each actor taking on multiple roles -- darted nimbly in and around the orchestra, delivering the rich text with great flair. (An eager dog went through his paces nicely, too.)
John Bolger captured Oberon's sneaky ways in deft fashion, enjoyed a good romp as one of the "rude mechanicals," and provided occasional bursts of narration to help move things along. (Not sure why Bolger did most of his acting in a stooped position.) Spencer Aste was a wry Puck, among other characters.
Kate Eastwood brought terrific, finely nuanced personality and superb comic instincts to the roles of Helena and Snout. Linda Powell offered plenty of elegance as Tatiana and Hippolyta. There was much to savor from the rest of the ensemble, especially Cody Nickell as Demtrius and Bottom.
Hearing Shakespeare through microphones isn't ideal, but the sound system at Strathmore proved effective (when it malfunctioned toward the end, the voices still emerged).
UPDATE 5/31: I have heard from someone who attended Friday's performance at Meyerhoff Hall and could make out only about half of the words. I suspected that the experience would not be as rewarding there as at Strathmore, which has pretty sophisticated equipment and is a more intimate space. The BSO may want to rethink programs at Meyerhoff inviolving amplified speech. Now, back to the review from Thursday at Strathmore:
All the while, conductor Marin Alsop had the musical side of things well in hand, and sculpted the score with a poetic touch. She also got into the act to speak a well-chosen line along with way.
Alsop drew lithe playing from the orchestra, especially in the famous overture, which Mendelssohn wrote at 17, years before creating incidental music for a "Midsummer" staging in 1843. It was a particularly good night for the violins, which produced a truly gossamer tone. Phil Munds delivered the horn solo in the Nocturne with his usual suppleness and beauty of expression.
Sweet-toned contributions from soprano Ying Fang, mezzo Julie Boulianne and the women's chorus of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society also added much to the evening.
Even the well-worn Wedding March had a fresh glow in this charming celebration of Shakespeare and a composer who responded to the magic of the Bard's text with magic of his own.
The concert repeats Friday through Sunday at Meyerhoff Hall.