Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream is many things -- deft operatic adaptation, feat of atmospheric orchestration, charming and subversive in equal measure -- but seldom, in my experience, moving. Christopher Alden's new production for English National Opera takes the work from English pastoral dream to urban nightmare, stripping metaphor and allusion away to reveal the something nasty that lurks in Britten's woods -- A Midsummer Night's Turn of The Screw. It's clever, provocative and against all odds the most darkly magical of reimaginings you're likely to see.
Biographical readings of Britten's music have become a wearisome cliché of the opera stage. The composer's homosexuality skulks below decks in Billy Budd, hides beneath the admissible abuses of Peter Grimes, and skips pointedly about in the shadows of Death In Venice and The Turn of the Screw. Placing the issue front and centre (the carved word "Boys" above the school entrance is never out of sight during the evening) Alden only keeps his production from becoming a meretricious abuse of directorial privilege through his absolute control and coherent working-out of the mise-en-scene.
Charles Edwards's set, groping out into the audience, ushers us into the central asphalt courtyard of a boys' school in the late 1950s. The silent procession of blazer-clad boys -- the fairies of the piece -- along the windowed corridors during those unearthly string glissandi of the Introduction is an image that lingers long behind the eyes. It brings into focus the music's anarchic stirrings, so often lost among leafy dells and RSC spirits, conjuring a shadowy magic in tune with Shakespeare's original.
In Alden's hands Oberon becomes a chain-smoking, slick-haired Latin master, a magus in spectacles and tie whose seductive incantation, "Esto quod es" ("Be what you are") dominates the blackboard behind him. Puck is his erstwhile favourite, now grown into adolescence and cast aside in favour of the young Indian boy. To complete the stages of manhood we have Theseus (though his identity is only late revealed), an old boy of the school, in whose dream-memory we are trapped, playing out fantasies of abuse and illicit encounters behind the dustbins, fantasies that must be purged (a purifying fire sequence achieves shocking impact) on the eve of his marriage to Hippolyta.
While Alden has his issues -- an over-reliance on the emotive caressing of walls by his characters, a tendency to complicate his case unduly (Tytania and Bottom's Act II flirtation with S&M) -- when allied to a cast who act as well as they sing, the effect of his transposition is to recapture the unmoored menace long lost by the play. We are disturbed, as we should be, by these youthful fairies who smoke, scheme and wear dark glasses, reawakened to the feral immorality of Oberon's troupe and uncertain that daylight and Theseus will bring resolution.
The conductor, Leo Hussain, works with Alden's vision, giving us a musical reading of uneasy strings and tense brass, drawing the percussive acid from the score. Only the Mechanicals' music, with its bel canto absurdities, fails to ignite, its stolid brashness needing greater vulgarity if it is to match the spare angularity of all around it.
As Oberon, an ailing Iestyn Davies was all gliding tread and sinister intent, leaving the role to be sung from the side of the stage by William Towers. While Towers's covered tone is perhaps a more authentic fit for the role created by Alfred Deller, it was hard not to miss the eerie purity and projection of Davies. An uncanny and infantilised Lucia last season, Anna Christy's Tytania is predictably otherworldly, but lacking the necessary vocal release in her Act II transformation. While Willard White demonstrates an unexpected gift for comedy as Bottom, matched dramatically by Simon Butteriss's mincing delight of a Starveling, it is Jamie Manton's conflicted and uncomprehending Puck who dominates dramatically, providing a warped counterbalance to the excellent quartet of squabbling lovers.
For some the subject matter alone will condemn this production; they will argue that the coy, closeted Britten would have detested it, that he would never have permitted such frank debasement of his material. Yet blind deference to authorial intention will take us only so far; listen to the eerie echoes of Peter Quint's celesta in Oberon's music, to the nervous tremolos of the Introduction, and try to argue that this is not the opera that Britten was afraid to write. In place of a smugly accomplished fairy tale we have a difficult, uncomfortable fable of the other, a musical and theatrical confrontation of all we suppress, sublimate and deny. For those brave enough to journey into Alden's lack of a wood, the rewards are great, and more potently evocative than any amount of musk-roses and eglantine.
English National Opera, London, until 30 June