INKPOT#56 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: BRITTEN A Midsummer Night’s Dream. cond. Britten (Decca)

Britten at a rehearsal for 'Midsummer', 1960


BENJAMIN BRITTEN
(1913-1976)
A Midsummer Nights Dream
An Opera in 3 Acts after William Shakespeare

Choirs of Downside and Emanuel Schools
London Symphony Orchestra
conducted by BENJAMIN BRITTEN

Oberon Alfred Deller countertenor Tytania Elizabeth Harwood soprano Puck Stephen Terry (spoken)
Lysander Peter Pears tenor Helena Heather Harper soprano
Demetrius Thomas Hemsley baritone Hermia Josephine Veasey (mezzo-soprano)

Bottom Owen Brannigan bass Quince Norman Lumsden tenor Flute Kenneth Macdonald tenor
Snug David Kelly Snout Robert Tear Starveling Keith Raggett
Theseus John Shirley-Quirk bass Hippolyta Helen Watts soprano

DECCA/LONDON 425 663-2
2 discs [74″00″+70’12”] full-price

Includes full libretto in English only. Recorded in 1966

by Chia Han-Leon

Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is in my opinion one of the best settings of a Shakespearean text in all of music. Although the play has been abridged and slightly rearranged, the text used is largely unaltered. The music, ranging from fairy eeriness to clowning baffoonish, is startlingly varied, colourful and finely crafted. Best of all, it captures the side-splitting humour, the fairy enchantment, the light and darkness of one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays with wonderful effectiveness.

In 1966, the composer conducted a recording of this brilliant opera, still available on Decca. The part of Oberon, King of the Fairies, is sung by a countertenor. In the voice of renown pioneer Alfred Deller, the spirit of this enigmatic character is caught to perfection. Deller’s powerful and shining voice portrays the dark magics of the Fairy King with awesome vividness, but is also eerily beautiful when need be. Listen for his startling entrance “Ill met by moonlight” [1:2, 0’24”], accompanied by the sorcerous rumblings and tinglings of the orchestra. Or the enchanted musings of the aria “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows” [1:6] – as his voice “blows” with the floating curtains of harp glissandos.

Benjamin Britten Another major role in the opera (and the play) is that of Puck. In a stroke of genius, Britten “scores” it as a spoken part. So rather than singing his lines, the player must utilize his theatrical resources. Stephen Terry does this with vigorous youth and boyish mischieviousness, energetically bouncing around the stage with his antics. No information is provided of the cast in this CD set, so I can only tell you that at the time of the recording he must have been in his late teens, no more, as his voice suggests.

This is in line with Britten’s casting of the fairies’ chorus for children. In this recording the choir consists of boy trebles. Much to their credit, all perform very well, including the quartet of named fairies who attend to Tytania (spelt as such in Britten’s copy of Midsummer – the original is “Titania”).

The part of Tytania, Queen of the Fairies, is sung by Elizabeth Harwood. Her coloratura matches her “fairy husband” in strength, conviction and beauty of voice, as exemplified in the utterly delightful “Be kind and courteous to this gentleman” [1:17]. This is an aria full of bird-warbling, floating gossamer harp and flowery fairy sounds.

Titania praising the Ass.  Illustration by Louisa Hare. It is sung during the scene when Tytania has been made (by her angry husband, out to trick her for disobeying him) to magically fall in love with the human mortal, Bottom. The latter in turn has had his head turned into that of an ass by the prankster Puck. Hence the famous image of Tytania embracing an ass-headed man.

Love of course is always one of the greatest inspiration for the greatest music. The duet between Lysander and Hermia [1:4] actually employs all twelve keys, as if expressing the great expanse of their love.


The humour of the play/opera actually has its main source in the narrative of the “mechanicals”. This is the group of craftsmen in Midsummer who are preparing a play for the Duke of Athens at his wedding. In the opera they are known as the rustics (“mechanicals” because, as opposed to “rustic” occupations, they have more “technical” jobs), with Bottom the weaver as their leader. This major role, which includes lines both humorous and philosphical, is aptly performed by Owen Brannigan. Of the rest, the most important roles are that of Quince the carpenter and Flute, a bellows-mender.

The reason why these roles are important is because of the internal play they enact. I assure you, it is a total laugh-fest, and represents Shakespeare’s wit and humour at its peak. Those of you who might have attended the Singapore Lyric Theatre’s production of the opera, here in Singapore, in September 1997 will know!

Admittedly, it is nowhere near as funny when heard (as in a sound recording) outside the theatrical context, because drama really needs to be seen – while it is being heard – at the same time. Its main saving grace on disc is the equally funny music, such as the ridiculously flightly flute theme that accompanies Flute whenever he appears on stage as the mock-tragic heroine Thisbe. The whole play-within-the-play is a parody of the typical “soap” tragedy, complete with sword-totting hero, the moon-lit rendevous with the lady, the tragic mishaps, mistaken presumptions and finally, swift suicide la Romeo and Juliet.

William Shakespeare Or so it should be! But not here! The tragedy is turned into comedy, the hero into a bumbling fool, the moon into a lantern, the lady every conceivable parody of the operatic diva. After his tragic death, the hero of course promptly raises himself to sing of his death before slumping into oblivion!

Left: The “Chandos” portrait of William Shakespeare. Anonymous, early 17th c.

If you ever get the chance to catch this opera, do! I have never laughed so hard at an opera in my life! All the more the contrast, when the mortals retreat, the music changes to reflect the final scene of the fairies. The Fairy King and Queen weave their lines into a final chorus of mermerizing beauty, as they sprinkle their blessings on the humans. Puck then closes the play with his famous epilogue.

Britten’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the embodiment of intelligent scoring with a medium-sized orchestra, drawing the most magical colours. The woodwinds and strings represent the human world, while the harpsichord, two harps, celesta and a large array of percussion always invoke the fairies. Finally the lower strings, brass and bassoon for the rustics. The whole outfit is used concisely and vividly to amazing effect.

Note that this music is not “traditional”; it is far far from Mendelssohn – the harmonies used in the opera make a fascinating study for musicians. It is distinctively modern, with the “un-Schoenbergian use of Schoenberg’s techniques” (Michael Oliver), but for the most part very accessible and tremendously evocative. The opening “forest music” for example, is a series of eerie string slides between common chords, but each chord based on different notes along the chromatic – you can almost see the branches moving in the shadows…

My favourite musical dream.

If you are in Singapore, this set is available at Sing Discs (Raffles City), Borders (Wheelock Place), HMV (The Heeren) and Tower Records (Pacific Plaza & Suntec City).

In his mischievious school days, Chia Han-Leon wrote many many essays on Shakespeare. His favourite redundant line is “O, I am slain! My lord, you have one eye left…”

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