Opera Scotland

Midsummer Night's Dream

Music

Benjamin Britten (born Lowestoft, 22 November 1913; died Aldeburgh, 4 December 1976)

Text

The composer and Peter Pears.

Source

Play A Midsummer Night’s Dream (c1594) by William Shakespeare (1564-1616).

 

Premieres
First performance: Aldeburgh (Jubilee Hall), 11 June 1960.
First performance in Scotland: Edinburgh (King’s Theatre), 22 August 1961.
Scottish Opera premiere: Stirling (MacRobert Centre), 24 March 1972.

 

Background
By 1960 the Aldeburgh Festival was well established as a regular summer event. The Snape Maltings had not yet been brought into use for performances, and the main venue was the Jubilee Hall. It was to celebrate improvements made to this building that Britten and Pears collaborated on the Dream. A small orchestra is required, as for his earlier chamber pieces, though the cast of performers is larger, including several children for the attendant fairies. Puck has been played successfully both by a boy and an adult (though certain acrobatic skills are a requirement).

The fairy music is notable for its eerie combination of strange string glissandi to represent the wood and the then unusual counter-tenor voice of Oberon (originally Alfred Deller). The music for the four lovers is perhaps conventional, but the treatment of the mechanicals and their play in the third act is generally successful, including a parody mad-scene for Flute/Thisbe.

 

Main Characters
Oberon, King of the Fairies (counter-tenor)
Tytania, his queen (soprano)
Puck, his servant (actor)
Helena (soprano)
Hermia (mezzo-soprano)
Lysander (tenor)
Demetrius (baritone)
Nick Bottom, a weaver (bass)
Peter Quince, a carpenter (bass)
Flute, a bellows-mender (tenor)

 

Plot Summary
The setting is in or near Athens in the classical period. The initial scene in the wood shows a feud develop between Oberon and Tytania over custody of an orphan under her protection. Oberon determines to seek revenge. He is distracted by the arrival of four Athenians, Hermia and Lysander fleeing since Hermia has been ordered to marry Demetrius. Helena and Demetrius give chase. Oberon orders Puck to sort matters out, but confusion results. A group of mechanicals comes to find somewhere quiet to rehearse a play to celebrate the marriage of Duke Theseus. Puck succeeds in creating further confusion. Once Oberon helps him rectify the situation, the opera ends with the successful performance of the play in front of the Court, celebrating three marriages instead of one. Oberon and Tytania are reconciled.

 

RECORDINGS

NVC (1 DVD) Sung in English Recorded 1981

Conductor: Bernard Haitink Director: Peter Hall
London Philharmonic Orchestra Designer: John Bury
Ileana Cotrubas (Tytania), James Bowman (Oberon), Curt Appelgren (Bottom).

This celebrated Glyndebourne production was instantly recognised as a classic and it is still difficult to imagine it being bettered. John Bury’s set designs are simple but atmospheric. His costumes, Elizabethan in period, use pinpoint accuracy of style to identify the characters, from Snug in a simple smock up through the mechanicals, with Quince and Starveling in skilled worker outfits. The lovers are clearly almost gentry and the Duke and his consort another notch up in aristocracy. Only the fairies wear full-blown Tudor courtly dress (complete with Spock-like ears). James Bowman was the definitive Oberon for the 1970s and ‘80s, here caught at his peak. The four lovers, Felicity Lott, Cynthia Buchan, Ryland Davies and Dale Duesing, are well matched, and the mechanicals farcical goings-on are kept under control. Puck is usually played by an adult actor-acrobat, but any apprehension about using a boy no taller than the other trebles is quickly dispelled by the superb performance by Damien Nash. The whole performance has a geniality that is hard to resist, led by Bernard Haitink from the pit.

 

DECCA (2 CDs) Sung in English Recorded 1966

Conductor: Benjamin Britten
London Symphony Orchestra
Elizabeth Harwood (Tytania), Alfred Deller (Oberon), Owen Brannigan (Bottom).

This recording is important because of its preservation of the composer’s own reading, with several of the singers who created their parts. Owen Brannigan is a wonderful, fruity-voiced Bottom with every word clear and Alfred Deller sings sweetly as Oberon. Harwood sounds lovely as Tytania without quite projecting all her words. The lovers, Heather Harper, Josephine Veasey, Peter Pears and Thomas Hemsley, all sound a touch too mature for their characters, but sing and act well. Kenneth Macdonald and Norman Lumsden are notably successful as Flute and Quince.

 

CHANDOS (2 CDs) Sung in English Recorded 1990

Conductor: Richard Hickox
City of London Sinfonia
Lillian Watson (Tytania), James Bowman (Oberon), Donald Maxwell (Bottom).

Richard Hickox did not quite complete his cycle of recordings of the Britten operas before his early death. This was one of the first in the series, and it set a high standard for his later versions to equal. Lillian Watson and James Bowman are well matched as the fairies and the quartet (Jill Gomez, Della Jones, John Graham Hall and Henry Herford) show off the next generation of voices well.

The Cast

Changeling
 
Cobweb
 a fairy
Demetrius
 in love with Hermia
Francis Flute
 a bellows-mender
Helena
 in love with Demetrius
Hermia
 in love with Lysander
Hippolyta
 Queen of the Amazons
Lysander
 in love with Hermia
Moth
 a fairy
Mustardseed
 a fairy
Nick Bottom
 a weaver
Oberon
 King of the Fairies
Peaseblossom
 a fairy
Peter Quince
 a carpenter
Philostrate
 
Puck
 Oberon's servant
Robin Starveling
 a tailor
Snug
 a joiner
Theseus
 Duke of Athens
Tom Snout
 a tinker
Tytania
 Queen of the Fairies

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