Tobias Cole as Oberon and Tyler Coppin as Puck (Photo: Jeff Busby)
Tobias Cole as Oberon and Tyler Coppin as Puck (Photo: Jeff Busby)

Overheard at interval:

Opera patron 1: “So, what do you think?”

Opera patron 2: “It’s…different.”

Opera patron 1: “It’s Benjamin Britten!”

Well, indeed. To not even mention William Shakespeare. Or Baz Luhrmann, no less. ‘Different’ doesn’t begin to describe it.

In many ways Baz and Ben are not-so-strange bedfellows (and let’s leave aside Willy for the moment). Both mavericks, as Sarah Palin might say. Both perhaps enamoured less with the consumption and commerciality of what they do and more with the craft of producing it. And both strongly divisive as a result. Ostentatious, in different ways. “You won’t believe what I can do with a score/script.” It’s true, we can’t believe it. But is it pleasing? Aurally, and visually?

He meant, the opera-goer from the start of our story, that Britten’s three-act work is elusive. It doesn’t sing so much as simply sound. Immersive without embracing. Vivid in its obscurity. He crafts, so expertly, a soundscape that piques and also puzzles.

Substance over style, perhaps — the very opposite charge Luhrmann is inevitably prosecuted with. He replaced swords with guns in the hands of Romeo and Juliet and dumped them in a corporate war set to a rock soundtrack of Garbage and Radiohead. He of the Parisian Bohemian romance that was so dizzying, so dazzling, as to make you nauseous. The recent ode he wrote to his homeland smacked you over the head with gleeful parody and piss-take over its marathon running distance. A Luhrmann show disorientates you with colour and movement so you don’t even notice the paper-thin premise.

Both men ask, quite honestly, what you want from this experience. Is it the opera of Verdi and Puccini and the like — the masterpieces, the money-makers — stories of romance and revenge and real pathos? Gregarious, lyrical melodramas that soar on the back of indelible arias? Is that what opera is; is that all it is? It’s okay to say yes. That’s the expectation for many, certainly. In which case, move along. Nothing to see here, folks.

Similarly, should theatre — stage or screen — simply reflect or also refract? Can it be shades of grey? Ugly, even? A new production of Tosca, seen earlier this year, conveyed the bleakness of its story — unspectacular but for the violence, virtually monochrome save for the blood — and critics howled it should immediately be dumped from the repertory. Hey, if we’re going to dress up and pay a couple of hundred dollars to go to the theatre what’s wrong with wanting to escape a little? Well, no worries here. Baz’s Dream is unashamedly pretty. Even more than original incarnations.

And then there’s Will. He’s intact — Britten and his domestic collaborator, librettist Peter Pears, pilfered the prose entirely (leaving aside much of the first act). The synopsis — if you didn’t study it in school, or haven’t seen it performed (popularly alfresco, fittingly) — is best left to Opera Australia’s handy guide for dummies:

One midsummer night the king and queen of the fairies are quarrelling: Queen Titania is besotted with a young boy and will have nothing to do with King Oberon. Furious, he commands his servant Puck to fetch a magic potion which has the power to make a person fall in love with the first thing they set eyes on. He plans to use it on Titania.

Meanwhile, in the human world Lysander, Hermia, Demetrius and Helena are young and in love. Unfortunately, Demetrius is in love with Hermia and Helena is in love with Demetrius. All four find themselves in the forest, and Oberon decides to use his magic potion on them to mix things up even more.

That same night six workmen — the ‘rude mechanicals’ — meet in the same wood to rehearse a play for the wedding of King Theseus and Queen Hippolyta, rulers of Athens. Their antics also attract the attention of the fairies, so out comes the magic potion again, with chaotic results.

Even for opera, it seems a stretch. But the vaguaries of Shakespeare I dare not contend.

Lorina Gore as Tytania and Tobias Cole as Oberon (Photo: Jeff Busby)
Lorina Gore as Tytania and Tobias Cole as Oberon (Photo: Jeff Busby)

So what exactly did Baz do in his 1993 adaption? Well, the enchanted forest has been uprooted from Athens to India. It fuses colonial charm with the festive sights and smells (incense wafts across the audience) of Bollywood. A rotunda — the band, Orchestra Victoria’s finest under the baton of Paul Kildea, are resplendent in uniform — dominates the lushly green stage. Fairy lights are strung from the banisters. There’s a shimmering lake under the bandstand. A swarm of little fairies (the adorable Opera Australia Children’s Choir) frolic around the water.

Not all Luhrmann’s vision, of course. His better half, Catherine Martin, was awarded for her design work along with collaborator Bill Marron. The sub-continental costumes are vibrant splashes of rich primary hued silks, beads and jewels. Nigel Levings’ lighting is enchanting; so too the original choreography of John O’Connell (revived by Belynda Buck).

It’s a really gorgeous scene.

The entire cast is terrific, in a true ensemble performance. Henry Choo and Andrew Moran, particularly, throw themselves into the slapstick of intoxicated lovers Lysander and Demetrius. Lorina Gore is an alluring queen, Tytania, and Tobias Cole handles the difficult countertenor as her king, Oberon. And Conal Coad, as the buxom Bottom, steals the show along with his merry band of Rustics (those scenes are really funny).

Ultimately, Baz’s warm and wondrous summer Dream is everything you might expect it to be: a veritable visual feast. Why not set this Shakespearan farce in India (though why, jarringly, keep the Athenian references — the setting is fair game, but the libretto is apparently off limits)? The transposition works as well as any of Luhrmann’s culture clashes.

And Britten’s opera? Well, that’s everything you might expect, too. It’s all a bit … different, really.

Curtain Call rating: B

The details: A Midsummer Night’s Dream plays five more performances at the State Theatre until December 18. Tickets on the OA website.

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