A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM – Benjamin Britten

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.