HSO, Hartford Stage Create Memorable 'Midsummer Night's Dream'

"But I will wed thee in a different key," said Grant Goodman as Theseus to Celeste Ciulla as Hippolyta in a fascinating collaboration between the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and Hartford Stage, as the orchestra continued their Masterworks Series in the Belding Theater at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts. In this production of the play, the "different key" was Felix Mendelssohn's complete Incidental Music to Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream'' performed by the HSO.

The most famous excerpts from the Incidental Music are familiar and appear frequently on symphonic programs. To hear the entire Incidental Music with one or two speakers standing next to the podium, two soloists and a female choir is fairly rare. But one never gets the opportunity to hear the complete Incidental Music with the play, fully costumed and produced, which was Mendelssohn's intention.

Stage Director Darko Tresnjak marshalled the forces of Hartford Stage to help produce a memorable impression. In a letter printed in the program Tresnjak referred to this play as being Shakespeare's "most perfect — and least cut-able — play." But he needed to significantly cut the text in order to allow time for Mendelssohn's music and to fit the entire event into the standard block for symphonic concerts; in this case two hours including a 20-minute intermission. Perhaps in the future a way to allow for an operatic time frame of three to four hours would become possible.

And yet it worked. Tresnjak maintained the complex narrative arc, and the insights from the interaction of music and play were as constant as they were extraordinary. This was a staging that was detailed and ever-inspired.

The evening opened with the famous "Overture" during which there were no actors onstage. Then we heard Act I of the play, which by design had no musical accompaniment. But when the fairy world of Act II emerged the two worlds (music and acting) began to combine and engage one another. We began to hear the text in musical ways, and the vivid gestures in Mendelssohn's music seemed to speak. The parallelisms and highly ornate structures of both music and text harmonized.

The orchestra was onstage with the actors and seemed part of the action, more so because the actors engaged them in humorous moments sprinkled throughout the evening. When they were not playing, the orchestra watched in amazement and seemed as entertained as we were. At other times it was as if the orchestra and audience embraced the actors onstage between us.

The HSO's Music Director Carolyn Kuan conducted the orchestra in vibrant tempi and vivid balances. She kept the event leaning forward and made the transitions into accompanied passages subtle and clean. The horn solo in the nocturne was golden. The flute playing at the close of the Scherzo sizzled, and the clarinet solo sounded haunted in that most strange "Marcia Funebre" in Act V. The palette also included lovely and resonant singing from Chorus Angelicus & Gaudeamus, and engaging soprano solos by Amanda Hall and Jamilyn Manning-White.

The acting was a delight. Characters spoke from both corners of the mezzanine and occasionally spilled over the stage into the aisles. A huge see-saw was used as a central prop to create motion and to reflect the oscillation of attractions in the plot. Goodman and Ciulla embodied the world of the courts and were also cast as Oberon and Titania. Andrew Patrick Mazer was an audience favorite as Puck. The four lovers: Kaliswa Brewster as Hermia, Kate MacCluggage as Helena, Timothy Longo as Lysander and Jacob Grannan as Demetrius were clever and funny and had chemistry in every possible combination.

Curtis Billings led the rustics as Nick Bottom. He was joined in charismatic performances by Michael Preston, Jimmy Bain, Maxwell Williams, James Will McBride, and Tom Foran. The four fairies were an active presence contributing to this production. Madison Obery was Peaseblossom, Emmaline Riley was Cobweb, Kristen Fitzpatrick was Moth and Lexi Alioto was Mustardseed. Though he didn't have a speaking part, everyone thought Ankit Roy was super cute.

This event was a celebration of Hartford Stage's 50th Anniversary and Hartford Symphony Orchestra's 70th Anniversary. Both are to be congratulated for the innovation of this production. Both undertook the significant effort of coordinating an effort of this magnitude. May this event bring new audiences to both organizations and may there be continued collaboration in the future.


"A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM'' continues through Sunday with performances in the Belding Theater at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford, at 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 10, Saturday, Jan.11, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 12. For tickets: (860) 244-2999 or go to hartfordsymphony.org.

See photos from the show's dress rehearsal on the CTNow Facebook page