Juilliard conjures up a pleasurable `Midsummer Night's Dream'. Britten's too-seldom-staged opera has magical moments

Opera is a tricky art form. Even with the best of intentions, a production can falter or fail if the various elements do not blend convincingly. Student opera is fraught with even greater problems; so it is rare to be able to note that a production seen at a music school has afforded unique pleasure. But this is precisely what must be said of the Juilliard School's American Opera Center staging of Benjamin Britten's ``A Midsummer Night's Dream,'' seen here in New York last week.

This work has never really had a fair shake in New York, though it has been staged to critical acclaim by some of our better smaller companies.

A Glyndebourne Opera production taped for video release has been held up as a particularly affecting experience.

Britten's chamber orchestra opera is a challenge in a too-large theater: It is crucial that one be able to hear every word, as the singers' voices blend with the sounds of the orchestra in order to allow Britten's fragile score to weave its magical spell.

Britten and the tenor Peter Pears collaborated on the libretto/adaptation of Shakespeare's comedy. Together they pared the Bard down to make his tale manageable for the demands of an art form where words have to be economically employed and where long strings of sentences are apt to bog the action down.

Actually, the opera takes a while to work its magic, but when it does, it reveals composer Britten in masterly form. Though never a great creator of melody, he always knew how to set words so that the instrumental colors in the orchestra reflected the mood of those words. He created a synthesis or musical fusion that played both on the conscious ear and the subconscious sense of beauty.

It was this synthesis that director/ choreographer Dorothy Frank Donner and set designer Franco Colavecchia captured so effectively. And, abetted by John Gleason's haunting lighting design and Thomas L. Keller's effective costumes, the look on stage at all times amplified the music.

In the pit, the Juilliard Chamber Orchestra was under the solid baton of Raymond Harvey.

It may not have been a grand night of singing, but under the circumstances, it made little difference.

And there were two singers of potential in the cast - Angela Randell as Helena and Kurt Loft Willett as Bottom. But it was the way the singers interacted, the sense that they had rehearsed this work as an ensemble, that made the evening so enjoyable.

Thor Eckert Jr. is the Monitor's music critic.

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