How Flying Beds changed the world of opera

Flying beds

When Robert Carsen first devised his production of Benjamin Britten´s Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1991 – Bergen National Opera´s recreation opens on Saturday 7th – the opera world reeled with shock. The curtain opened onto a giant bed occupying the whole stage, with pillows the size of an average truck, and a bedspread in brilliant green unrolling like a football pitch.

Characters bounced across the bedclothes, tumbled and twirled, the twenty small boys playing pompous, grumpy fairies marched across the set like badly-behaved toy soldiers, and just as those surprises settled, the third act opened onto a skyscape with three huge flying double beds. Opera, in the early 90’s, simply wasn´t like this. Furniture onstage was roughly the size you would expect it to be, and it stayed on the ground. Choruses were adult and unlikely to have blue hair. And outside Baroque music, no-one expected the hero to be a spectacular counter-tenor with a deeply cynical grin.

This was not Shakespeare – or an opera – as anyone knew it. Plenty of opera directors had produced the work beautifully since its first showing in 1960: Britten had written it for the celebrations surrounding the new town hall in his English seaside home, Aldeburgh. The premiere there had caused enough surprise – this was not the sombre-minded composer who had riveted the UK with disturbing operas about misfits in the community, dark goings on at sea and more than a hint of obsession with beautiful youth. Taking Shakespeare’s text much as in the original, Dream burst into life as a great riot of human feelings – passionate love, cruel mirth – jostling with the glittering dark mischief of the fairy kingdom.

The opera has never had a professional performance in Norway, and BNO and partners BFO felt strongly that to perform the opera, chosen by both as part of Bergen Philharmonic´s Jubileum Season would be a fine thing. It seemed to be the moment for Carsen´s startling, iconic setting to be seen in Norway. The music is magical, shimmering, melodic and enticing, and the assembled cast is stupendous. There’s the sense that the humans are reckless intruders into dangerous fairyland where romps a whole realm of naughtness.

Right now in rehearsal, behind real-life scenes, all kinds of dramas are unfolding. How does a 2metre high bass-baritone sing with a massive hairy donkey-head obscuring his skull? How do twenty small boys with bright blue violins and scarlet gloves all pluck the strings in time? And what about the soprano who isn´t too keen on heights lying on that flying bed?

Meanwhile BNO´s Puck, the super-bouncy fencing master from Game of Thrones, Miltos Yerolemou (look out for him too in a small part in the new Star Wars) is enchanting everyone as he sprints from disaster to joy.

So the production may startle you, excite you have you shout with laughter just as Britten, reinvented by Carsen intended. Midsummer Night´s Dream does just what opera can do like nothing else – it tells you an unforgettable story.

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