A new production of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream opens later this week at ENO, directed by Christopher Alden with a cast led by Anna Christy (who took the title role in ENO’s recent Lucia di Lammermoor) as Tytania and the very wonderful Iestyn Davies (certainly the finest British countertenor around, although he’ll have to work hard not to be mistaken for Puck) as Oberon. There’s also Willard White as Bottom. And all in all, it looks like being a hot-ticket show: there are ten performances, running May 19 to June 25.
It’s strange, though, to think of this piece playing on such a vast stage as the Coliseum, given that it premiered, June 1960, in the cramped, unprepossessing circumstances of Aldeburgh’s seafront Jubilee Hall. Tytania, then, was sung by Jennifer Vyvyan; and indeed the role had been conceived specifically for her. ‘I can hear your voice in every note I’ve written so far’, declared the composer in a letter to her from the previous autumn. And it’s likely that the ‘y’s in her name prompted Britten to adopt the archaic spelling of Tytania rather than Titania as he originally had it.
Details of Vyvyan’s involvement with the Dream and its subsequent performance history are given in the relevant chapters of this website (see The Britten Connection, Biography and Repertoire). It’s the Dream above all that charts her up and down relationship with Britten as she disappeared from the cast when it transferred to Covent Garden and onto disc but was then reinstated a few years later when it toured to Brussels, San Francisco and other UK venues.
All of them, of course, were bigger than the Jubilee Hall. But there would have been one serious advantage in that little place: it’s small enough to have ensured that everybody heard the boys who sing the fairies. Larger venues make it difficult, which is one reason why latterday productions often replace them with young women.
I don’t know what the plan is for the Coliseum. But I do, on principle, think rough-voiced boys (Britten was adamant they shouldn’t have cathedral sound) are preferable. So long as they project!