Benjamin Britten’s Dreams

McDonald, Russ. 2012. Benjamin Britten’s Dreams. Shakespeare Survey, 65, pp. 138-146. ISSN 0080-9152 [Article]

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A minor but telling moment in the history of operatic performance occurred in São Paolo in November 2003. Gerald Thomas, director of what we might call an imaginative production of Tristan und Isolde, was greeted at the curtain call with a hostile chorus of boos, whereupon he dropped his trousers and mooned the audience. Charged with an act of public indecency – for the exposure, not the Tristan – he thus supplies a convenient introduction to the topic of directorial creativity and, since the focus of my analysis is Benjamin Britten’s adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it is a happy accident that the composer should have treated the noun ‘moon’ with great playfulness in the last act of his opera. The following discussion considers three important productions of Britten’s Dream, attending particularly to the aims and achievements of the different creative teams. They are Peter Hall’s 1981 staging for Glyndebourne, frequently revived and available on video; Robert Carsen’s much travelled production, which originated at the festival in Aix-en-Provence in 1991 and was filmed in Barcelona in 2005; and Christopher Alden’s recent version for the English National Opera, premièred in London in May 2011. These three major realizations serve as epitomes of three different directorial styles, offering a range of interpretations of Britten’s take on the Shakespearian original and collectively providing a useful survey of the changing modes of opera production at the end of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first century.

My larger aim in studying these three stagings is to address the question of directorial licence. The escalation of directorial authority and innovation over the past two decades has reached so extraordinary a pitch as to require a rigorous debate over the production team’s proper role. Most of the responses in the opera houses and in the popular press constitute no more than emotional evacuation: journalists delight in trumpeting the latest excesses of the most recent bad boy or girl and his or her directorial outrages. Such discourse adds little substance to the conversation. In America this radical or avant-garde style of production, seen with less frequency than in Europe, was until recently known as Eurotrash; the more neutral term is Regietheater; I prefer to call it Director’s Opera.

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English and Comparative Literature
Research Office > REF2014



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03 Oct 2013 11:47

Last Modified:

18 Feb 2015 22:28

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Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.


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