A Midsummer Night’s Dream In Focus
Premiere: Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh, 1960
Wit, romance, a bewitching air of wonder, and moments of genuine human emotion—all the dramatic elements that have made Shakespeare’s fantasy-comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream an audience favorite for centuries are equally abundant in Britten’s operatic adaptation. The unique ambience of the story has attracted musicians for a long time: Mendelssohn’s incidental music for the Shakespeare remains highly popular today, and Purcell’s dramatic setting The Fairy Queen was well known to Britten. Yet for all the music inspired by the play, Britten’s opera remains uniquely rewarding in its ability to blend the story’s many layers with a distinctly accessible 20th-century musical language. The multi-faceted cast of characters includes two pairs of lovers who have quarreled themselves to the brink of separation; the King and Queen of the fairies, who are fighting about a foundling child; a lordly couple whose impending marriage appears to have set all creation speculating on the nature and limits of love; and a band of bumbling commoners who hilariously prepare and perform a play about true love gone wrong. To simply capture the essence of these diverse stories and moods in a single work of music is engrossing enough, but it is opera’s (and Britten’s) special ability to brilliantly move among them and illuminate their relationships to each other.
British composer Benjamin Britten (1913–1976) created works in a wide variety of genres, and several of his operas (including Peter Grimes and Billy Budd) are among the most enduring of the 20th century. The plays of William Shakespeare (1564–1616) have inspired a huge number of operatic interpretations from composers of many nations and in many languages. Britten’s collaborator in adapting A Midsummer Night’s Dream into a libretto was his life partner, tenor Peter Pears (1910–1986). Many of Britten’s operas were created with starring roles for Pears; in this one, he took the smaller yet crucial role of Flute.
The opera, like the play, is set in the “woods outside Athens.” This locale refers to both the dim and unknown atmosphere of the forest and the city of Athens, the epitome of civilization. The play has scenes in both environments; in the libretto, most of the action taking place in the city (Shakespeare’s first act) is cut, shifting the emphasis onto the world of the fairies.
Much of the power of Britten’s remarkable score lies in the colors depicted in both vocal lines and subtle changes in orchestral tone, which masterfully reflect the aura of magical transformation so central to the story. The orchestra prepares the audience’s ear at the very beginning of the opera, moving through a sequence of 12 string chords that appear to morph imperceptibly from one to the next. The various realms that intersect throughout the story are clearly defined in the instrumentation: harps, harpsichord, celesta, and percussion are notable in the world of the fairies; woodwinds and strings are prominent for the lovers; and bassoon and lower brass are emphasized for the rustics. The onstage fairies in Act II serenade Bottom using sopranino recorders, small cymbals, and woodblocks. Vocal settings likewise illustrate the nature of the characters: the all-male rustics are mostly lower-voiced; the lovers, male and female, occupy the middle ranges; and the fairies are sung by children’s voices, coloratura soprano, and countertenor. Puck, as a sort of emissary between these worlds (including our own, since he addresses the audience directly) is a spoken role, with trumpet and snare drum often accompanying his lines. Among the score’s vocal highlights is Thisbe’s lament during the play-within-the-play in Act III. Featuring a florid flute accompaniment (with the role of Thisbe fittingly performed by Flute), it is a parody of a Donizetti mad scene. Tytania’s coloratura aria in Act II is a more modern vision of madness. Oberon’s Act I aria, “I know a bank” explores the dreaminess in this tale, while the trio “Now until the break of day” toward the end of Act III, performed by Oberon, Tytania, and the fairies, is a haunting depiction of strife giving way to concord.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Met
Britten’s opera was first seen at the Met in this production in 1996, which marked the company debuts of director Tim Albery and designer Antony McDonald. David Atherton conducted the ensemble cast, which included Sylvia McNair as Tytania and Jochen Kowalski as Oberon, as well as Met debutants Peter Rose, Barry Banks, and Rodney Gilfrey. The production was revived in 2002, featuring, among others, Susan Chilcott in her debut as Helena, David Daniels, Paul Groves, and Nathan Gunn.