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.

A weekend in Scotland with Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and a visit to the Scottish Opera

Litton_and_Marshall

It was great to be in the Usher Hall, Edinburgh on Thursday to hear the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra at the start of their UK tour. And what a concert! Delius, Grieg – with a poised and powerful performance of the piano concerto by Christian Idle Hadland – and a storming account of Strauss´s Ein Heldenleben. Perhaps orchestras always play their best on tour – there´s the frisson of excitement to be in a new city and an atmospheric grand hall – and certainly both BPO Music Director Andrew Litton and the orchestra´s engagement with the music was compelling. For the Edinburgh audience, albeit on this occassion well supported by a robust posse of ex-patriot Norwegians and other lusty Nordic enthusiasts, the powerful music-making brought surprise: no-one, one suspects, expected such a moving, energetic, thrilling and startlingly elegant performance from little Bergen, better known over the North Sea for fjords, cute houses and a Hanseatic past. Let´s get the opera over there soon for more surprises.

The picture is taken after the show, with Jay Marshall, former Chairman of Dallas Opera, and Andrew Litton.

Then to Britten´s Midsummer Night´s Dream the following night, to explore a fantastic collaboration between Scottish Opera and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, where the two combine – more inter-twine – to build an annual production between professionals and young artists. It´s a great partnership, where singers, designers, production, technical teams build a show together in a mutually inspirational process. The young cast – RCS opera students with a couple of SO´s ’emerging artists’ – were startlingly good. This is not easy music, but their stagecraft and their voices were impressive. Director Olivia Fuchs (who worked with us for Bergen National Opera´s OperaFest recently) led us into a fantastical world of tricks and gentle magic. And all credit to Puck, who sparkled in this intriguing dreamland.

Back in chilly Bergen, the weekend brought total immersion in chorus casting and much mulling over production around next Autumn´s youth opera production, All about my Family . Lots to discuss, not enough workshop time, orchestration issues… business as usual. But excitement too, as singers begin to arrive today for the start of our Janacek production Cunning Little Vixen. We begin this afternoon. It´s a small Scottish/Russian/Swedish/Israeli/English invasion all set to mix with Norwegian artists. Great – we love these international collissions. Rory Macdonald conducts – my first encounter with him was as a foxcub in the the beautiful old David Pounteney production for Scottish Opera (currently in revival at Wesh National). Rory was originally cast as the frog but says his jumping wasn´t sufficiently virtuosic. We hope that the Bergen frog, Mattias Skrede, is working on his hops.

Mary Miller