Australian Director Baz Luhrmann Takes His Talent to Opera

IT requires a leap of imagination to comprehend "Midsummer Night's Dream," which one expects to take place in Athens, when Tytania shows up in a Hindu sari.

But that's what you get with Baz Luhrmann's production of Benjamin Britten's pared-down, operatic version of Shakespeare's play - a luscious visual feast and mental acrobatics. Luhrmann's production for the Australian Opera has transformed the Sydney Opera House stage into the garden of a maharajah's palace that has been taken over by the British Viceroy in 1923.

Luhrmann and design collaborators Catherine Martin and Bill Marron are proving that the trio's formidable talents, shown in the award-winning film "Strictly Ballroom," are transferrable to opera.

"Ballroom" dealt with individuality cracking through the smiling cold-hearted control of the ballroom dance world. The "Dream Team," as the trio have been dubbed, explores the edge of that same theme here. This "Midsummer Night's Dream," Luhrmann has said, is about repressed sexuality confronted with the steamy, colorful, mystical world of India.

The set is a marvel. A three-tiered, dome-capped gazebo rises out of a shimmering pool. The tiers represent different realms that the characters find themselves in: The fairies scamper up top, the orchestra (in red military-band uniforms) occupies the middle section along with the upper-crust mortals, and the rustics are on the grass where most of the action takes place. I say most, because the singer-actors climb, chase, and slosh all over the entire set. They are to be commended as much for their actin g and their stamina as for their excellent singing.

The opera opens with four lovers strolling in silence about the grounds - the women languid in beige chiffon, the men stiff in beige uniforms. Hermia (Kirsti Harms), who is supposed to marry Demetrius (Paul Whelan), looks longingly at Lysander (Neill Archer), who looks longingly back. That's the last time they look so sartorially correct, until the end. In the two couples' mad dash through the dark forest - finding, losing, pursuing, and avoiding each other - their clothes get lost or disheveled.

Dark is a key word here. Shakespeare's fairy kingdom is often portrayed as lighthearted. Not here. The lovers' flight intersects with Oberon's (Michael Chance) and Tytania's (Kathryn McCusker) epic custody battle in the forest. Britten brings out the fairy king's domination by casting him as a counter-tenor.

But it's not an oppressively dark vision. After their long night in the woods, with the misunderstandings generated by Puck's misapplied love potions, the exhausted lovers awake into glorious daylight and rediscover each other.

And the production is shot through with impish humor and glancing interjections of modern culture. Puck, with vigorous hand signals, directs the fairies to park one of the potion-drugged lovers as if she were a plane.

British conductor Roderick Brydon ably leads the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra through Britten's impressionistic score.

Luhrmann, Martin, and Marron have worked together since drama school days. They also live and travel together, and their projects tend to take over their lives. "Strictly Ballroom" immersed them in ballroom dance for two years. For the Australian Opera's 1990 "La Boheme," they went to Italy, where Puccini wrote the opera, then to Paris, where they lived out the opera's plot of starving artists in a garret. For "Dream," they went to Britten's home in Aldeburgh, England, and to India. They discovered that

Britten was interested in Asian mysticism and music.

* "Midsummer Night's Dream" continues at the Sydney Opera House through Sept. 9.

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