Earlier this summer, producer Joseph Papp promised his Central Park audiences a very beautiful production of ''A Midsummer Night's Dream.'' Mr. Papp has been as good as his word. The lovely revival at the Delacorte Theater is an evening of many enchantments, much magic, and genuine emotion.
The pleasures of the evening begin with Heidi Landesman's landscaping of the Delacorte stage. The scenic designer has converted the broad playing space into an undulant expanse of verdure -- of grassy slopes and flowering shrubs, of grotto entrances and a special tree-enclosed bower for Titania and her rollicking fairy brood. A downstage pond sports a plaster statue of Cupid. From some perspectives, the lake beyond the Delacorte appears to be an extension of Shakespeare's world. Father-of-parks Frederick Law Olmsted might have enjoyed the prospect.
Within this sylvan setting, director James Lapine has created a version of the enchanted comedy that establishes its own freshness while honoring the vision of an enduring classic. Mr. Lapine begins with an amusing prologue in which Philostrate (Ricky Jay), master of the revels to Theseus, performs a few card tricks and some fumbling jugglery. Thereafter, ''A Midsummer Night's Dream'' gets down to the business of Shakespearean magic as the Bard tangles and untangles romantic destinies.
Duke Theseus (James Hurdle) and his conquered Amazonian Princess Hippolyta (Diane Venora) prepare for their nuptials. Lord Egeus (Ralph Drischell) comes before the Duke invoking the rigors of the law to force his daughter Hermia (Deborah Rush) marry Demetrius (Rick Lieberman) instead of her beloved Lysander (Kevin Conroy). Meanwhile, in a nearby enchanted wood, Oberon (William Hurt), King of the fairies, and Queen Titania (Michele Shay) commence a marital spat that in one way or another affects all the Athenian mortals.
Imperious Oberon's designs both carry and miscarry. Puck (Marcell Rosenblatt) , the fairy king's scampering minister of mischief, gets things right when he turns Bottom the Weaver (Jeffrey DeMunn) into the ass with whom Titania becomes briefly smitten. But Puck gets things all wrong when it comes to sprinkling love potions on the lost young lovers.
Mr. Hurt is a regally imposing Oberon, the extent of whose magic powers is demonstrated by his occasional entrances straight up through the greensward. The exquisite Miss Shay is the kind of vision one would expect the Fairy Queen to be. (Let us not forget the tiny boy who is such a delight as her cherished changeling.)
As always, Helena has the best of it among the mortals, and Christine Baranski plays her with a blend of distraught despair and ladylike fretfulness -- not forgetting to don her white gloves and rearrange her picture hat at a moment of crisis. Miss Rush makes a pettish Hermia, while the Messrs. Lieberman and Conroy invest the pursuing swains with importunate ardor. Led by Mr. DeMunn and Steve Vinovich (as Quince), the rude mechanicals bring off the ''tedious brief scene of young Pyramus and his love Thisby'' with hilarious earnestness.
The prevailing characteristic of the mercurial Lapine treatment would seem to be timeless-contemporary. The characteristic is most evident in Randy Barcelo's eclectic costumes, ranging from antic get-ups for the fairies to pretty picture frocks for the Athenian ladies. Orient and Occident, past and present, come together in a sort of United Nations ''Dream.''
With all of its playfulness and rich merriment, Mr. Lapine's ''Dream'' excels in its grace and endearing humanity. The director clearly loves all the comedy and farcicality of the play. But he also cherishes its lyric delicacy and, beyond that, the fragility of human relationships that can be transformed by magic, liberated by laughter, and embraced in the tenderness of Oberon's blessing:
So shall all these couples three Ever true in loving be; . . .