Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream

August 4, 2021 - Santa Fe Opera

Written by:
Michael Wade Simpson
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In the last act of Benjamin Britten’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” after all the lovers have been reunited, the Ass has been turned back into a man, and things seem suddenly aligned, a band of local craftsmen/actors come out to present their much-anticipated play, “Pyramus and Thisbe,” designed as entertainment at the wedding of the Theseus, Duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. Britten’s musical joke is that this play-within-an-opera is a spoof on Italian Bel Canto opera, complete with mad scene.

Of course, to many opera-goers, Italian Bel Canto opera is opera, and Britten’s British style is all harps and fairies—a mild-mannered attempt at operatic art. However, for those with more catholic taste in opera,  Britten’s music is nuanced and complex, and the opera based on Shakespeare’s most popular play is layered appropriately with magic. Santa Fe’s somewhat stripped-down version has much to recommend. Here’s to an evening without bombast!

While Britten and his librettist shortened the original Shakespeare play, eliminating the first act and beginning things in the forest with fairies, there are still fourteen different characters to keep track of, and a complicated plot including love triangles, magic potions, and chaos. The opera, in its attempt to simplify the Shakespearian text, misses plot clarity and exposition once furnished by the playwright—it’s often a challenge to keep up with things.

Fortunately, the composer helped create order by using  “the bright, percussive sounds of harps, keyboards and percussion for the fairy world, warm strings and wind for the pairs of lovers, and lower woodwind and brass for the mechanicals,” according to music critic Paul Thomason.

 Puck, the Trickster who moves the story, has a speaking role, but his musical signature is solo trumpet and drums.

In the Santa Fe production, Netia Jones, the director who also designed the set, costumes and projections, was interested in how the vast night sky in New Mexico, and the theories of astronomy and cosmology which were prevalent in Shakespeare’s time, could inform her version of “Midsummer.” The raked set included a huge tree, an equally imposing armillary sphere and telescope, and a dilapidated piano. There are also holes in the floor, which open and close to allow fairies to enter and exit. Projections of the moon, sky, animal shadows and other atmospheric touches, shown on a round screen suspended over the back of the stage added to the enchantment.

Erin Morley, as Tytania, Queen of the Fairies, stood out with a crystalline soprano voice. Her counterpart Oberon, played by Iestyn Davies, a countertenor, offered authority without as much machismo as a deeper voice might have offered. It was a dramatically interesting choice that Britten made. In 1959, countertenors were still regarded as freakish novelties, yet this Oberon, King of the Fairies, seemed perfectly cast within a magical realm. Puck, played by Reed Luplau, was lithe and acrobatic, Lysander, one of the young lovers, played by Duke Kim, an Apprentice Singer, showed a lovely tenor voice and the ability to zip around the stage like the young man he is. Among the craftsmen/actors, Bottom, played by Nicholas Brownlee, a last-minute substitution in a summer when most European singers were not allowed to leave their quantined countries, did a fine job as the man with the head of an Ass. Francis Flute, played by Brenton Ryan, was hilarious playing Lady Thisbe.

For those who only know heavier Britten operas like “Peter Grimes” or “Billy Budd,” “Midsummer” may come as a musical surprise. He was a prolific composer who explored various styles and themes —but the music in “Midsummer” is more shimmering and subtle than erotic and dark. There is plenty of humor in the piece, which makes it perfect for summer audiences. And forget the complicated story–the orchestral score alone is a reason not to miss this production.

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