A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM – Benjamin Britten

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When Ben­jamin Brit­ten decided in the sum­mer of 1959 to write a new opera to open the  Alde­burgh Fes­ti­val June 1960, and to inau­gu­rate the rebuilt Jubilee Hall, he was set­ting him­self an almost impos­si­ble task. Later Brit­ten said, “As this was a com­par­a­tively sud­den deci­sion there was no time to get a libretto writ­ten, so we took one that was ready to hand. I have always loved A Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream.

It is extremely unlikely that, in fact, Brit­ten decided to tackle turn­ing a com­plex Shake­speare play into an opera because of a short­age of time. But he and his life part­ner, the tenor Peter Pears, came up with a work­able libretto in remark­ably short order. “The play already had a strong ver­bal music of its own,” Brit­ten explained. “The first task was to get it into man­age­able shape, which basi­cally entailed sim­pli­fy­ing and cut­ting an extremely com­plex story…I do not feel in the least guilty at hav­ing cut the play in half. The orig­i­nal Shake­speare will survive.”

The score of the opera show­ing scenes of the orig­i­nal production

The opera begins with Shakespeare’s sec­ond act — in the woods — and there are only six words in the libretto that are not in the orig­i­nal play. To clar­ify why Her­mia and Lysander are flee­ing Athens (one of the major plot points in Shakespeare’s first act), Brit­ten and Pears added the line, “com­pelling thee to marry with Demetrius,” for Lysander to explain Hermia’s plight.

One of the things I like about Britten’s adap­ta­tion is that he starts in the woods,” says Edward Berke­ley, direc­tor of Aspen Opera The­ater Cen­ter. “The music at the begin­ning has the feel­ing of threat, of some­thing omi­nous going on. In the play, and the opera as well, the Shake­spearean tan­gle is actu­ally a place where peo­ple go to essen­tially resolve inner issues that they can’t resolve in soci­ety.  So the Shake­spearean wild is like a place of psy­cho­log­i­cal night­mare.” By start­ing in the woods, it means that only the final scene of the opera takes place else­where — after the char­ac­ters have resolved their dilemmas.

The music Brit­ten wrote for the open­ing of the opera, plus a lot of the Fairy music and for Oberon and Tyta­nia, has a sense of dis­or­der,” Berke­ley points out. “I think the best of the lovers’ music comes when they start fight­ing, and the music is at its most dis­or­derly. There’s the sense the lovers have left orga­nized soci­ety, ready to bat­tle it out. They’ve had to go to another place. It’s as if we have to leave soci­ety to resolve things.”

The orches­tral music with which Brit­ten opens the opera imme­di­ately places us in the woods, the glis­san­dos in the muted strings — repeat­edly mov­ing up and down the scale — sug­gest­ing the breath­ing of some­one deep in sleep. Or per­haps it is the sound of the wood at night, with creak­ing branches; or the sound of the magic spell that is on the wood and every­one who comes within it.

Britten’s music bril­liantly depicts the three dif­fer­ent worlds of the play – the world of the Fairies, the world of the human lovers, and the world of the Rus­tics, as Brit­ten called Shakespeare’s “rude mechan­i­cals” – by giv­ing them each a dis­tinc­tive musi­cal sig­na­ture. The fairies have a rather del­i­cate sound from the orches­tra: harps, harp­si­chord, celesta and per­cus­sion. Oberon, King of the Fairies, is a coun­tertenor (see side­bar), his Queen, Tyta­nia, is a col­oratura soprano, and the fairies are sung by a children’s cho­rus. Puck is a speak­ing role, accom­pa­nied by drum and solo trum­pet, though the exact rhythm of his words is notated in the score. “I got the idea of doing Puck like this in Stock­holm where I saw some Swedish child acro­bats with extra­or­di­nary agility and pow­ers of mim­icry,” Brit­ten explained.

The human lovers are accom­pa­nied by a nor­mal orches­tra of strings and wood­winds. The Rus­tics have their own orches­tral sound, made up of bas­soon, brass and lower strings.

Aspen’s pro­duc­tion of the opera is rooted more in the musi­cal world Brit­ten cre­ated, rather than in the orig­i­nal play. “We’re tak­ing off on some of the Japan­ese and Asian influ­ences in the music,” Berke­ley says. “The fairy world is Asian influ­enced, it’s exotic, but knowable.”

In addi­tion to the humor of Shakespeare’s orig­i­nal play (bril­liantly real­ized in the music of the opera), Brit­ten also added his own bit of humor in the final scene when the Rus­tics present their play to the court. His oper­atic ver­sion of their play “Pyra­mus and Thisbe” is a bril­liant take off on Ital­ian bel canto opera, com­plete with mad scene.  At the time of the first pro­duc­tion of Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream, the now leg­endary soprano Joan Suther­land had just set the oper­atic world on its ear with her bril­liant per­for­mance in the title role of Donizetti’s Lucia at Covent Gar­den. Peter Pears, who was singing Flute/Thisbe at the pre­mière, did a wicked imi­ta­tion of Sutherland’s Lucia mad scene. George Mal­colm, who con­ducted the sec­ond per­for­mance (Brit­ten con­ducted the pre­mière), claimed Pears was so funny “I could hardly keep my place in the score for laughing.”

Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream was a hit at its pre­mière, and it has been a strong pres­ence in opera the­aters ever since. In the Lon­don Times, critic Frank Howes raved about Britten’s new work, call­ing it “a major opera of the size and qual­ity to fol­low Peter Grimes around the world, for it con­tains music as imag­i­na­tive as the text to which it is set….The impres­sion made by the performance…was that of being gripped by a spell, of being sub­jected to a dose of Oberon’s own medicine.”

Like any great com­edy, there is a seri­ous res­o­lu­tion to Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream, and for Edward Berke­ley, that is one of the strengths to the opera. “One of the things I love is that every­one finds each other, so we have a quote happy end­ing. But the way to the end­ing is actu­ally through mys­tery and magic, rather than through rea­son. It’s not through human logic that we find peace, it’s actu­ally through some sort of mys­ti­cal or divine bless­ing. The way Brit­ten sets the end of the opera, the final Fairy cho­rus is truly divine. When they sing ‘Now until the break of day,’ it feels like the angels in Hansel and Gre­tel have descended, to bless not only the house but to bless the world inside the theater.”

MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM — An aside

When Ben­jamin Brit­ten was writ­ing the music of Oberon, King of the Fairies, he knew exactly whom he wanted for the role — the man most respon­si­ble for the mid-20th cen­tury revival of the coun­tertenor voice, Alfred Deller. On August 18, 1959, Brit­ten wrote him, “I see you and hear your voice very clearly in this part.”

Alfred Deller

Deller, how­ever, was wor­ried that his lack of oper­atic stage expe­ri­ence might be a prob­lem. He had been a choral singer most of his life, most notably con­nected with the Can­ter­bury Cathe­dral choir, and in 1950 had formed the Deller Con­sort to give his­tor­i­cally informed per­for­mances of Eng­lish Renais­sance and Baroque music. His singing of Henry Purcell’s “Come, ye Sons of Art” on the BBC had made him a national fig­ure. Pur­cell, him­self, had sung coun­tertenor, and Deller was an impor­tant part of the revival of inter­est in Purcell’s music.  But despite his vast expe­ri­ence in con­certs and recitals, he had almost no expe­ri­ence in opera. Peter Pears assured Deller that he was per­fect for Oberon. “Your height and pres­ence will be absolutely right ( – so will your beard!)”

Deller was thrilled with the music Brit­ten wrote for him and, in addi­tion to cre­at­ing the role of Oberon at the pre­mière, he can be heard on the record­ing of Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream con­ducted by the composer.

Today coun­tertenors are com­mon in opera. They have moved into the parts com­posers like Mon­teverdi and Han­del wrote for the cas­trati, as well as assum­ing many male roles com­posers wrote to be sung by women, such as Orfeo in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. But at the time Britten’s opera was writ­ten coun­tertenors were still a nov­elty for many in the audi­ence. In his biog­ra­phy of Brit­ten, Humphrey Car­pen­ter tells a story he cred­its to the tenor Robert Tear. After one of Deller’s con­certs the coun­tertenor was approached by a Ger­man woman who demanded, “You are eunuch, Herr Deller?”

Madam,” Deller replied, “I am sure you mean unique.”

This arti­cle first appeared in the pro­gram book of the Aspen Opera The­ater.

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