Particle physics will likely not be top of mind for most viewers of the Santa Fe Opera’s premiere of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, based, of course, on Shakespeare’s play.
In one of the opera’s many supplementary programs to this season, however, physicist Steven Goldfarb suggests Shakespeare may have been prescient in his understanding of what would come to be known in the 20th century as quantum field theory, which describes the interaction between two separate physical systems.
Putting aside Einstein’s theory of special relativity, Heisenberg’s quantum uncertainty principle and the Higgs boson (although Goldfarb mentions all convincingly in SFO’s “Another Look” series), Director Netia Jones’ production does not shy away from tackling the mysteries of the universe.
Jones, making her SFO debut, also is the scenic, costume and projection designer, and spoke in the opera’s “Consider the Source” series about her site-specific approach to the opera. That meant grounding the design and perspective in New Mexico’s landscape, where she found the “counterpoint” between the scientific and the artistic resonated with the themes explored in the play and the opera.
First, the story. Or stories, to be more precise.
Three distinct groups, each with signature orchestral styles (a treat from start to finish from conductor Harry Bicket), find their way into the forest on a midsummer night where the moon and other forces conspire to create magic and mayhem.
King and Queen of the Fairies Oberon (countertenor Iestyn Davies in his SFO debut) and Tytania (soprano Erin Morley) are in conflict over the fate of a changeling Tytania wants to keep. Oberon enlists the sprite Puck (actor and choreographer Reed Luplau in a spoken role that he plays winsomely) to use the juice of a magical and rare flower to enchant Tytania into believing she loves the first person (or creature) she sees upon awakening. Davies’ falsetto and Morley’s coloratura soprano voices perfectly capture the otherworldly dimension of the fairy world, trilling from the eerie and ominous to the childlike and innocent.
Members of the Athenian royalty follow, dressed in an approximation of school uniforms to represent the more ordered world from which they come. Hermia (mezzo-soprano Adanya Dunn) and Lysander (tenor Duke Kim) have run away from Hermia’s father, who wants her to marry Demetrius (baritone Luke Sutliff on opening night in replacement for Michael J. Hawk). He in turn is pursued by Helena (soprano Teresa Perrotta). All four young lovers are also SFO apprentices this season and, though occasionally drowned out singularly by the orchestra, sing wonderfully together, particularly in their Act 3 quartet.
Finally, the third group—called mechanicals by Shakespeare and rustics by Britten, essentially artisans—meet to rehearse a play they hope to perform when Duke Theseus of Athens weds Queen Hippolyta of the Amazons. One of them, Peter Quince (bass Kevin Burdette) casts Nick Bottom (a terrific bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee in his SFO debut, replacing British baritone Ashley Riches, who was unable to travel due to international travel restrictions) to play Pyramus and Francis Flute (the very funny tenor Brenton Ryan) to play Pryamus’ lady Thisbe (aka ill-fated lovers from Ovid). The first act ends with Puck mistaking Lysander for Demetrius, sprinkling him with magical juice, so when Helena, in pursuit of Demetrius, awakens Lysander, he immediately believes he is in love with her. Oberon, in turn, drops the juice onto Tytania’s eyes, and when she awakens in Act 2, she falls in love with Bottom, who has been transformed by Puck into an ass.
The night that ensues, accordingly, fills with confusion as the lines between reality and unreality/night and day/sleep and wake becoming increasingly blurry. A large reflective orb (think moon) casts changing images onto the stage, projections that range from the verdant to the floral, from star-charts to ink splatters, at times infusing the entire show with the quality of a Rorschach test gone awry. The stage itself includes a tree-filled piano and telescopes, as well as numerous openings in the stage from which the fairies sometimes emerge.
Jones set out to privilege the sky and the moon as a major force in the production, citing cosmology as another overlapping feature between New Mexico and the play/opera. But she also wanted to integrate psychology (think Jung’s shadows) to provide multiple ways of considering the relationship between lightness and darkness, consciousness and the unconscious mind (and, yes, there appears to be some sort of analyst’s sofa on the stage).
Does one need to follow the intimations of Jungian psychology and Ptolemaic astronomy to enjoy this opera? No, those can also be set aside along with particle physics (although if one wants to think of those topics, the opera provides a heady experience). In truth, one does not even need to follow the plot to enjoy this show, which is filled with thrilling music, original visuals and a full stage of action throughout. As for that plot, as Lysander, aka Shakespeare notes, “the course of true love never did run smooth,” but, rest assured, all’s well that ends well.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
8 pm, Aug. 4, 13, 19 (Aug. 25 sold out)
Limited tickets available with dynamic pricing ranging from $36-$300s
Simulcast tickets range from $100-$125 per vehicle
Free Opera in the park screening, 4 pm, Sunday, Aug. 8, Villa Linda Park
Editor’s note: The original version of this story mis-stated the singer performing the part of Demetrius on opening night. SFR regrets the error.