When Richmond audiences enjoy Virginia Opera's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" this weekend, they'll have a rare treat: an incidental preview of the season's next show.
In March and April, the opera company will perform Gaetano Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor," famous for its mad scene in which a bride murders her husband on their wedding night. Part of Benjamin Britten's "Midsummer" apes the scene musically. The parody is just one of many surprises this opera has in store.
Still the tale of love, fairies and romantic hijinks that has wowed audiences for centuries, this "Midsummer" is the rare operatic adaptation of Shakespeare performed in its original Elizabethan English. Though characters and events have been condensed for time and clarity, it's still a fairly faithful work, retaining its original themes and message.
"It's about love," director Michael Shell says. "It's about all of the wonderful, beautiful, amazing things that we do for love, but it's also the crazy, idiotic, ridiculous things that we do for love."
Adapted by Britten and co-librettist Peter Pears and first staged in 1960, this "Midsummer" takes some shortcuts that Shell says British audiences might understand better. To add cohesion, he's played up the dreamlike aspects of the show.
As any good Shakespeare nerd knows, "Midsummer" is divided into different worlds of characters who intersect and cause chaos in each other's lives. Britten gave a distinctive sound to each group: The rude mechanicals are accompanied by brass and bassoon, the lovers by passionate strings and woodwinds, and the fairies by percussion, harp and celesta.
"He wanted three distinct atmospheres to give them a different sensibility," explains Adam Turner, Virginia Opera's conductor. While he says he doesn't want to give it away, Turner says the forest where the action takes place also has its own sound world. "You can hear the forest slumbering and creating some murky shadows."
In emphasis of the etherial quality of the opera, Britten wrote the part of Oberon, king of the fairies, for a countertenor. The male vocal range is the equivalent of a female contralto or mezzo-soprano.
"I think Benjamin Britten just simply wanted to give this character an otherworldly sound," says Turner of the role, which will be played by Owen Willetts. "Out comes this glorious, high voice. It's very unique."
Another highlight of the score is the part of Tytania, queen of the fairies, which is written for a lyric coloratura soprano. In this show, Tytania will be played by Heather Buck, who portrayed the Queen of the Night in Virginia Opera's 2013 staging of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's "The Magic Flute."
Having been one of the first roles she tackled after graduate school, Buck says her exposure to Tytania gives her an edge.
"I think that I am able to dig deeper into her needs to say things, to do things, to interact with characters, and that's a distinct pleasure for me as an artist," Buck says. "She's not a one-dimensional character. I feel like her music has many different aspects of her personality that are able to shine through."
Having played her role in three previous productions, Buck says "Midsummer" continues to surprise her.
"It's deeply imaginative, and as I become more and more familiar with it, I find myself blown away by its genius," Buck says. "Sometimes it's funny, sometimes it's heartbreaking, and at the end, things work out."
Buck this staging is "visually spectacular," pulling lights, projections, costumes and set together to create a fantastical world.
"This is going to be a magical night for people," Buck says. "This very beautiful chemistry has come together, and I think people are going to be blown away by it." S
Virginia Opera's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" plays Feb. 23 and 25 at the Dominion Arts Center, 600 E. Grace St. For information, visit vaopera.org or call 866-673-7282.