And in Peter Hall's production of the opera at Glyndebourne, everything – set, lighting, design – is in on the joke to make humankind look absurd and woodland folk sublime.
It is no exaggeration to say that A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of the most important – and entertaining – operas not only of the 20th century but ever. Its rare sensitivity to the original Shakespeare text, characterisation and ravishing music alone propel it straight into any top ten, but its added value is in having restored to its rightful place the high, counter-tenor voice which is now, as it was in earlier centuries, a beguiling and expressive presence in the opera house.
In this revival, counter-tenor Tim Mead follows in distinguished footsteps, not least those of Alfred Deller who was Britten's original Oberon at Aldeburgh in 1960, as the king of the fairies, imperious, grandiose and haughty, a towering presence in the woods at night, where nothing is as it seems. Here is a voice to turn night into day.
When this production was first staged Iin 1981 - and I remember vividly to this day seeing it for the first time then - from the first bars of music it was clear that audience expectations of fairyland would be dashed. There are no leafy green fairy bowers, no wispy nymphs in the woodland conjured up by the design of John Bury. Instead, the husband and wife team Elizabeth and John Bury (Elizabeth joining the curtain calls on the first night of this 2016 revival) had observed that the forest at night is black shot with silver. That is the colour scheme that runs through the whole drama, from the swept up, startled hair of the fairies to the ornate doublet and hose of the fairy court, with its Elizabethan figures.
And all is movement in an apparently still place that plays tricks with the eyes. The sliding music from the orchestra awakens a shape-shifting on stage that only gradually reveals its secret: the trees are alive, the distinction between sprites, mortal, animate and inanimate finally dissolved in an intoxicating elixir.
Potions and essences with powerful properties are the nifty devices that snap the plot of Shakespeare's play from problem to problem to resolution, and they are mostly administered by the boisterous urchin Puck, here tiny David Evans, a forest-wise, estuarine chancer.
Kathleen Kim as Tytania is an ethereal lubricious fairy queen, if not always distinct in the libretto so defly rendered down from the original play by Britten and his partner in life and music, the tenor Peter Pears (the original Flute, the bellows mender).
These bitter, prickly, otherworldly creatures apart, this perfectly balanced opera is peopled too by the hopeful amateur actors and tradesmen, and the four lovers, stumbling in and out of love in the dark. Matthew Rose as the bombastic weaver who wants to play every part in the mechanicals' clumsy entertainment, and who, with the addition of an ass's head, is conjured into the object of the fairy queen's voluptuous affections, is gloriously funny. His reluctant stage lover in drag, Anthony Gregory, is both winsome and indignant.
As the lovers who are accidentally swapped by fairy intervention, Benjamin Hulett, the ruby-rich mezzo-soprano Elizabeth De-Shong and Duncan Rock are particularly fine, De-Shong hilarious as Hermia, incandescent with rage at lofty Helena (Kate Royal).
In the pit, Jakub Hruša conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra, whose palette is as rich as the stage is monochrome in Britten's brilliant, witty, score.
And as dawn breaks and colour floods again over lighting designer Paul Pyant's silky night, the spell might be broken were it not for a masterstroke by the master magician Hall himself, an arc of fairy dust, like a musical line picked out in the air. It is meltingly lovely moments like this that mark him out as a theatre and opera director in a class of his own.
Hard to believe that this production might not ring out for ever, but you can never be sure. Get a seat for A Midsummer Night's Dream now, even if you have to grow gossamer wings and fly into the auditorium. Like all the opera's characters, after this enchanted night you will never be quite the same.
|What||A Midsummer Night's Dream review , Glyndebourne Festival Opera|
Lewes, East Sussex, BN8 5UU | MAP
|Nearest tube||Victoria (underground)|
11 Aug 16 – 28 Aug 16, 4:20 PM – 8:40 PM
|Price||£15 - £260|
|Website||Click here for further information and booking|