- by Benjamin Britten
- In English with projected English texts
- Approximate Running Time: 3 hours, 1 minutes
David Daniels reigns supreme in "a production that's pure delight." Opera News
Shakespeare's best-loved comedy is an equally bewitching opera!
Britten's score literally shimmers and breathes — capturing perfectly the ethos of an enchanted forest where magical things can and do happen (with a few dark undertones to keep things interesting)!
Here, four star-crossed lovers and a troop of bumbling actors find themselves at the mercy of fairies — whose king, Oberon, is in the middle of a major spat with his queen, Tytania. Watch what happens when that charmed love-dust starts flying!
A captivating children's chorus, the hilarious "play within a play" (one of opera's funniest scenes)...the joys of the dream go on and on.
As Oberon, David Daniels: "His characterization is sexy and dangerous and brings with it a glorious, powerful voice." The Wall Street Journal
As Bottom, Peter Rose "steals the show...with his big, confident bass and bags of personality." The Times, London
LYRIC OPERA PREMIERE
Generous sponsors for this production are The Elizabeth Morse Charitable Trust, the Earl and Brenda Shapiro Foundation, and Roberta L. and Robert J. Washlow.
Co-production of Lyric Opera of Chicago, Houston Grand Opera, and Canadian Opera Company.
Unearthly — that’s the only way to describe the orchestra’s very first notes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Those murmuring, eerily slithering strings transport listeners into an enchanted world, where fairies and mortals collide and anything can happen!
Benjamin Britten based his opera on Shakespeare’s best-loved comedy. Combining fabulous theatrical flair with rollicking humor and ravishing lyrical beauty, the opera is more than worthy of the Bard. In a new production directed by Neil Armfield and conducted by Rory Macdonald (debut), A Midsummer Night’s Dream promises to be a major highlight of the 2010-11 season.
Britten composed his opera to commemorate the reopening of the Jubilee Hall in Aldeburgh, the town in Suffolk, England, where he and his companion, tenor Peter Pears, ran the music festival they cofounded. There wasn’t enough time to work on a libretto created from scratch, so Britten chose instead to adapt A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play he adored. Collaborating with Pears, Britten cut all but a third of Shakespeare’s text. What remained, however, was all Shakespeare, set with matchless musical imagination. Britten conducted the Aldeburgh Festival’s world-premiere production on June 11, 1960. “Captivating” wrote one critic, while another described his response to the music as “astounded, spellbound.” It has since worked its magic in many major opera houses worldwide.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream takes place in a forest, where four young people are very stressed out indeed. Because Hermia (mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong) has been ordered by her father to marry Demetrius (baritone Lucas Meachem), she and her beloved Lysander (tenor Shawn Mathey, debut) have fled Athens. Pursuing them in the forest are Demetrius, who loves Hermia, and Helena (soprano Erin Wall), who loves Demetrius! Meanwhile, Oberon, the fairy king (countertenor David Daniels), has had a serious argument with Tytania (soprano Anna Christy), his queen. He gets the better of her by sprinkling the nectar of a magic flower on her eyes as she sleeps, so that she’ll love the first person she sees upon awakening. That turns out to be Bottom, the weaver (bass Peter Rose), who’s meeting his fellow tradesmen in the forest to rehearse a play. Tytania is besotted, even though Puck, Oberon’s mischievous attendant, has transformed Bottom’s head into a donkey’s! There are many other comic scenes along the way, but the lovers are finally properly paired, and Tytania is happily reunited with Oberon. Before King Theseus and Queen Hippolyta of Athens, Bottom (now restored to human form!) and his friends present their play — the tale of two hapless lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe.
Everything transpires onstage to music that characterizes each group perfectly — fairies, lovers, and “rustics.” In the prelude, says Lyric music director Sir Andrew Davis, you hear “the sound of the wood, the forest. I don’t know of any other sound in music quite like that, because it’s all done by the strings, playing very gently, one note gliding into the next, the chords blending into each other. Britten had a great gift for painting a dark world — slightly threatening, but at the same time beguiling.” Director Neil Armfield agrees, while also relishing the end of Act Two, “On the ground sleeps sound,” sung by the children’s chorus who play the fairies. There are parodies of Verdi and bel canto in the rustics’ play, which Armfield considers “one of the most sublimely hilarious pieces of writing of all time.”
Another imaginative touch is Britten’s decision to assign Puck to an actor, who is accompanied by percussion instruments. Midway in the opera, having observed the four wildly emotional lovers, Puck — surely literature’s most incorrigible imp — quips with great amusement, “What fools these mortals be!” It’s one of many delicious moments in this role.
Armfield’s inspiration stems in part from Peter Brook’s now-legendary Royal Shakespeare Company production, which “blew fresh air right through the play. He identified the kind of raw animal sexuality inside it, as well as the absolutely joyous, circus physicality — there was such a wonderful sense of play.” In Armfield’s own production (co-owned by Lyric, Houston Grand Opera, and Canadian Opera Company), he and designer Dale Ferguson present the action in what the director calls a “sensual dreamscape.” The forest is revealed through “a kind of green skin that surrounds the stage, like looking inside an aquarium.” Another special feature is the chariot-like cage occupied by Oberon that floats above the stage.
The fairies’ look is inspired by references to indigenous cultures — Maori, aboriginal Australian, and particularly Polynesian. When the lovers return to Athens, however, it’s an American look — recognizably in the early 1960s, the period when Britten was writing the opera. With the first appearance of Theseus and Hippolyta, there’s a passing reference to JFK and Jackie on the Capitol steps. Armfield describes this production’s lovers as “young, preppy college kids running away from strict upper-middle-class parents.” The rustics look simply like “humble working-class guys.”
The fairies drew special attention at the world premiere because of their fabulously evocative music, in which Oberon was sung by a countertenor (male alto). Britten felt that this sound could marvelously communicate an otherworldly quality onstage. Oberon was composed for Alfred Deller, the trailblazing countertenor of the 1950s and ’60s. The role figures prominently in the repertoire of today’s most celebrated countertenor, David Daniels.
Oberon has brought Daniels great successes at the Met, Barcelona (DVD), La Scala, and London’s English National Opera. He relishes this character, especially Oberon’s volatile relationship with his queen: “I think the anger, the power play between Oberon and Tytania, sets up the whole evening in the opening scene. Nobody fights and gets that angry unless they’re passionately in love with each other!”
The vocalism presents challenges for any countertenor, with many important moments written in a low range and formidably difficult rhythms throughout. “I continue to keep Oberon in my repertoire because I love the opera,” declares Daniels, “especially the ensemble aspect — not necessarily the role on its own, but the role within the piece.” Daniels relishes his first-act aria, in which the fairy king envisions Tytania on “a bank where the wild thyme grows.” In this music “Oberon is painting a beautiful picture — ‘There sleeps Tytania…’ You’ve got to see that side of Oberon at this point: there is pleasure, love, a memory of how sexy she looked lying there on the bank.” Another favorite scene comes in Act Two “when I put the spell on Demetrius. Oberon sings, ‘Flower of this purple dye,’ and it’s so eerie.”
Contrasting with Oberon’s majesty is the irrepressible boisterousness of Bottom. Peter Rose’s much-acclaimed portrayal has been seen at seven major companies, among them the Met, Paris, Glyndebourne, and Barcelona. What attracts the English bass to the role? “He’s such a sympathetic character, and the driving force behind much of the action. He’s also the one person who wakes up and says, ‘I have had a dream’ — that’s the ‘midsummer night’s dream’! For me, he’s a very lovable and easy person to inhabit.”
This character’s friends refer to him as “sweet bully Bottom.” Rose admits that Bottom is slightly “over the top, but I don’t think he’s a bully the way we use the word today — he’s just a little insistent about his own abilities. He wants to play every part in the play until he’s coaxed back into reality.” Rose has varied his characterization from one director to another: “At the Met, Tim Albery didn’t want me to burst in; instead, in a rather English way, I would say, ‘Oh, actually I think I could play this part,’ whereas in Robert Carsen’s production I was shoving everyone out of the way and saying, in effect, ‘I am going to play this part!’ That’s the beauty of the character — there isn’t just one way of doing it.”
Regardless of how he’s portrayed, Bottom can have an audience literally weeping with laughter. Rose notes, however, that for the humor to come through strongly, “you have to play it absolutely straight. If you’re focused on not playing it for laughs, if you passionately believe that what you’re doing is true, the ridiculousness makes the humor.”
A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Lyric is sure to offer musical and comedic bliss. “I’m terribly proud of the production,” confesses Neil Armfield. “It’s one of those rare moments where everything works together to go beyond just being a piece of sung music theater. It’s a unique experience.”
On the Record
Roger Pines, dramaturg at Lyric Opera, recommends these recorded performances.
Deller, Harwood, Brannigan, Harper, Pears; London Symphony Orchestra, cond. Britten (Decca – Set also includes four other Britten operas)
Bowman, Watson, Maxwell, Gomez, Graham-Hall; City of London Sinfonia. cond. Hickox (EMI)
Singers always loved performing under Britten’s baton. He conducts the Decca performance, in which several members of the original cast appear. Of special interest is Alfred Deller, for whom the role of Oberon was written. His countertenor is not especially strong or colorful at the bottom of his range, but his highly distinctive timbre — a sound that, once heard, can never be forgotten — makes a powerful impression nonetheless. Although not always completely intelligible, Elizabeth Harwood’s shimmering Tytania ravishes the ear in every phrase she utters. The opera’s co-librettist, Peter Pears, who created the role of Flute, is heard here as Lysander, for which his voice is no longer quite fresh enough. The other lovers and all the “rustics,” especially the aptly hearty Owen Brannigan (Bottom), are well in the picture, and the youthful Stephen Terry is an appropriately impish Puck.
EMI’s performance under the late Richard Hickox is a souvenir of a stage production, with all the benefits one would expect. The cast is led by James Bowman, who succeeded Deller as England’s most celebrated countertenor and made Oberon his particular specialty. The rest of the cast all give notably vivid performances, making a choice between the two recordings difficult. If pushed to the wall, I’d go with Decca, but EMI is a close second. Any Britten admirer should have both, and with the EMI performance listed at a bargain price, why not?
Daniels, Sala, Rose, Daniels, Hahn, Gietz; Gran Teatre del Liceu, cond. Bicket (Virgin Classics)
Bowman, Cotrubas, Appelgren, Lott, Davies; London Philharmonic, cond. Haitink, dir. Hall (Kultur)
The two DVDs present a study in contrasts. The DVD recorded in 2005 in Barcelona possesses significant strengths in David Daniels and Peter Rose, the two singers more closely associated with this work than possibly anyone else on the current international scene. Rose, managing Bottom’s donkey head with aplomb, leads the “mechanicals” in high style, with every line of text crystal-clear. With a gleeful middle-aged Puck (Emil Wolk) in tow, Daniels’s Oberon, sporting green pajamas and green hair, is in commanding voice, delivering his mesmerizing “I know a bank” on an enormous pillow. Robert Carsen’s captivating production places Act One on a bed that takes up the entire stage. There are seven individual beds in Act Two and three elevated beds in Act Three (their disappearance at the end of the act’s first scene is a major coup de théâtre). Ofelia Sala’s delightful Tytania cavorts in a slinky blue evening gown. The lovers are in evening dress; all four singers, expert both musically and dramatically, are comfortable enough to appear in their underclothes onstage without embarrassment. Michael Levine’s costumes for Theseus and Hippolyta (Ned and Jean Rigby, each strongly cast) are as magnificently regal as one could possibly desire.
Glyndebourne’s celebrated Peter Hall production (1981) is a real fairytale, dark and gloriously atmospheric as directed by one of today’s greatest Shakespeareans. Everyone cavorts in lovely Elizabethan outfits, with particularly elaborate attire for Oberon and Tytania; an imposing wig makes the already tall countertenor James Bowman positively towering, opposite the diminutive Ileana Cotrubas. These two boast the strong personalities — both personally and vocally — that their demanding roles require. Wonderfully appropriate in voice and physical type are the two young ladies, as played by the willowy Felicity Lott (Helena) and the petite Cynthia Buchan (Helena), opposite two exceptionally musical gentlemen, Dale Duesing (the cast’s sole American, singing Demetrius) and Ryland Davies (Lysander). Most unexpected and not quite successful is the casting of a Scandinavian bass, Curt Appelgren, as Bottom, but the rest of the “rustics” are effective, especially dulcet-toned Patrick Power (Flute). Glyndebourne’s resident orchestra is the London Philharmonic, conducted here by the company’s music director at the time, Bernard Haitink.
BOLD TYPE = Artist performing in this opera at Lyric in 2010-11