An Eclectic Dream
by Roger Brunyate
|Program cover by Susan Caplan|
If Britten’s approach to the opera is at the same time highly eclectic and very much his own, he is merely reflecting the structure of the Shakespeare play, which takes a number of disparate elements and unites them through the magic of a special time and place. The time, of course, is Midsummer’s Eve; the place is the “wood near Athens”; but the magic is the magic of poetry — to which Britten adds the very special magic of his music. Miraculous music, indeed, which manages to find a different style for each of the contrasting elements in the play, but brings them together into a single whole.
Nothing shows the primacy of music better than the way in which Britten and his collaborator Peter Pears shaped their libretto by rearranging the Shakespeare text, and in particular the way they handled the settings. As often in his comedies, Shakespeare contrasts two different worlds in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. One, the real world of the Athenian court, is a harsh place where fathers dictate the marriages of their daughters, and the punishment for elopement is death. The other is the magic world of the wood near Athens, a fairy kingdom ruled over by Oberon and Tytania, whose marital quarrels involve the whole of nature in their discord, and whose rule is even more arbitrary and extreme. And yet the confusing events of this forest nightmare have the ultimate result of sorting out the affections of the four lovers who take refuge there (and those of Oberon and Tytania too), so they may return to Athens in amity and concord. In the play, the outer acts take place at court, and frame the central action in the wood. In the opera, however, the wood itself is the frame, the musical matrix in which all else takes place. Britten and Pears omit the first court setting, beginning right away in the wood; and though they visit the court in their final act, their opera ends musically as it had begun, not in reality but magic.
|production photos by DARRYL CARR|
|Oberon and Puck in the magic wood|
|Ryan de Ryke and Kenneth Harmon|
The spell cast by the music is heard the moment the prelude begins — a sound unlike anything else in the literature. First come deep notes in the lower strings, then an eerie glissando up to a quite different chord over an octave higher. This subsides to the original notes again, then rises once more, the glissandi seeming like the swell in the depths of the ocean, or some animal stirring from its sleep below ground. The pace increases, the glissandi getting wider, wilder, and the range of chords increasing until every note in the scale has been touched. Finally they reach a series of quick repeated chords at the very top of the orchestra, in the brittle coloration of harps, harpsichord, triangle, and glockenspiel. The world of the fairies has come to life. This music recurs whenever the magic of the wood takes hold; it is a world in which nothing is quite as it seems. It is absent for most of Act III, but the same unmistakable colors return at the very end with the re-entrance of Oberon and Tytania. Rather than framing the action in the real world of the court, Britten has realized that, as a musician, he is dealing in magic from the beginning, and so his Dream is contained entirely in the phantasmagorical world of the fairy wood.
|Helena and Hermia|
|Karen Zizzi and Seung-Hee Han|
The most strongly characterized are the fairies. All have high voices: Tytania is a coloratura soprano, Oberon a countertenor, and Britten originally used boys for the chorus. Their instrumentation is similarly high, dominated by harps, harpsichord, and high percussion. Unlike the gossamer fairy music that Mendelssohn seemed to make inevitable, this is brittle and spiky — thistledown with more than a touch of the thistle — and with toy-soldier overtones; Puck’s instruments, for example, are trumpet and drum. In musical style, moreover, the fairies seem to come from a very different century. Oberon’s music, florid and decorated with exquisite care for the words almost as magic talismans, reflects Britten’s long study of the music of Henry Purcell. Tytania’s voice floats over the ground of some renaissance dance. The fairies even pull out wooden recorders to serenade Bottom.
|Lysander and Demetrius|
|Taylor Brickley and Brian Ming Chu|
By contrast, the music for the mechanicals, while it owes much to the long tradition of opera buffa, is more in the fragmented style of the earlier part of the twentieth century: Prokofiev or Shostakovitch. Their scenes feature mainly wind instruments, used soloistically rather than in choirs. As a result, individual colors stick out, often with comic effect, as when the trombone is used to back up Bottom’s bid to play the Lion, and the piccolo to represent the shrieks of the ladies if he should play it too well.
But Britten reserved his most outrageous stylistic parodies for the play of Pyramus and Thisbe with which Bottom’s troupe finally entertain the Duke. Not only does he pick up on every one of Shakespeare’s cues for mangled punctuation or mismatched affects, but he does so in a veritable compendium of musical cliché. Pyramus enters to the rhythms of the “Miserere” from Trovatore. Thisbe’s aria is a parody of the mad scene from Lucia di Lammermoor (this was the year of Joan Sutherland’s sensational debut in the role at Covent Garden) — except that the flute, instead of accompanying her in her madness, pointedly corrects every wrong note! The Lion has a polka; Thisbe kills herself to a sentimental Victorian ballad; and Wall announces himself in twelve-tone Schoenbergian Sprechstimme.
|Ryan de Ryke as Oberon|
Shakespeare has Oberon and Tytania enter the court at midnight to bless the union of the newly-married couples. But, by dealing in music as his medium, Britten does not so much make the fairies intrude as have the court dissolve in a tintinnabulation of chiming clocks, followed by a stately Purcellian dance to bring repose to a madcap world. Musically, at least, we are back in the magic wood once more. But Puck’s cheeky epilogue has one more twist in store, his word “you” nicely reversing the positions of actors and audience:
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended:
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear….
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