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An Eclectic Dream

by Roger Brunyate

  Program cover
Program cover by Susan Caplan
Some opera composers show their originality in their choice of subjects; others choose stories which many other composers might also have tackled, but do so in original ways. For the most part, Benjamin Britten’s operas are of the first kind; his subjects, from Peter Grimes to Death in Venice are uniquely his, and avoid many of the themes — such as romantic love — normally associated with the opera medium. But his setting of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which premiered in 1960, is an exception. The play is so self-evidently operatic that one wonders why it had never been set before. It positively revels in romantic love and its discontents. And Britten’s treatment of it, while uniquely his, manages at the same time to pay tribute to the operatic and musical traditions of the previous three hundred years.

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.

Oberon and 
Puck
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  
Helena and Hermia
Karen Zizzi and Seung-Hee Han
There are at least three quite separate groups of characters in the opera, and three almost separate plots. One is the quartet of mismatched lovers: Hermia and Lysander, who elope to the wood, and Demetrius and Helena, who follow in jealous pursuit. Another is the sextet of "rude mechanicals," the weaver Bottom and his friends, who come to rehearse a play to present to the Duke of Athens. And the third, of course, are the Fairies: Oberon and Tytania, Puck (a part for an acrobat and speaker), and a chorus of trebles. Each group is given its own distinctive sound and musical style.

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
Lysander and Demetrius
Taylor Brickley and Brian Ming Chu
Britten’s style for the lovers, on the other hand, is much more in the romantic tradition. The same musical theme is treated as a passionate love-duet between Lysander and Hermia, and a furious quarrel between Demetrius and Helena, but both moods might equally well be found in the operas of Verdi. The orchestration is substantial, resting on a strong foundation of string sound, often joined by woodwinds and brass used as choirs, for greater richness of color.

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
Ryan de Ryke as Oberon
Although Britten may have a laugh at Schoenberg’s expense, his own personal use of twelve-tone technique is one of the stylistic elements linking the disparate musical elements into one. Unlike Schoenberg, however, who cycled through the twelve notes of the scale to avoid undue dependence on any one of them, Britten uses the device to bring freshness to music which is essentially tonal. Many of the most memorable moments in the score have a twelve-tone underpinning: the cycle of shifting keys in the prelude; a similar effect in the brass fanfares which punctuate Lysander and Hermia in their duet of fidelity; and most wonderful of all, the quartet when the lovers finally awaken from their dream, expanded from Shakespeare’s line “And I have found Demetrius like a jewel,” with the word “jewel” falling on a new and magically unexpected chord each time. Britten even couches his tribute to Mendelssohn in twelve-tone terms, as when he opens the prelude to Act II with four chords reminiscent of Mendelssohn’s overture which together comprise all the notes of the scale and all four sections of the orchestra. It may seem academic, but when the same music returns under the Fairies’ lullaby at the end of the act (a tune to leave the theatre humming), it sounds the most natural thing in the world.

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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