Part of the fun of revisiting Britten’s operas this anniversary year has been to see whether my previous opinions — sometimes formed on slight acquaintance — are confirmed or upended. As I wrote a few weeks ago, I was disappointed to be disappointed by The Turn of the Screw, which I had thought I would enjoy more than I did. But then here comes Britten’s operatic setting of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to restore the balance: I had thought (based on a live performance I saw about ten years ago) that it was a pleasant but fairly peripheral work, but now, after spending time with a few recordings, I am close to bursting with enthusiasm. Well, at least I find it to be much better than I had remembered.
The piece had its premiere in 1960; Britten himself, with Peter Pears, adapted the piece from Shakespeare, and the libretto is fairly faithful to the beloved original, right down to individual lines. Britten does superb work providing distinctive musical backdrops for the three principal groups of characters: the fairies, the lovers, and the rustics. If I am not mistaken, this was Britten’s only operatic comedy (unless I count the early quasi-opera Paul Bunyan), and the wit comes through brilliantly, especially in the Pyramus and Thisbe section.
As the story is known to everyone, let’s move directly to some musical highlights. Sad to say, but there are only a few video clips available on YouTube; this makes my work easier, but I am not convinced these slim pickings will really allow me to convey the charm of the piece.
Here are the opening few minutes, in which a chorus of fairies sings the famous “Over hill, over dale” lines. The intonation of these young fairies is not all that it might be, but the only other clip I can find is worse. The mercurial quality of the fairy music comes through well:
A little further along in Act I we are introduced to Oberon, whose part is, most unusually, written for a countertenor voice. (Britten wrote it for Alfred Deller, who sang the premiere.) Here he sings “Welcome, wanderer” to Puck. I don’t much like the choreography here — Puck’s movement is too angular and somehow sinister — but it is unlikely that the song could be sung more beautifully (thanks to David Daniels):
Of course, the comedic high point of the opera is the rustics’ staging of Pyramus and Thisbe. It goes on for probably 15 minutes in total, but here is an excerpt which catches some of the humour. (My favourite line — “Now will I to the chink, to spy and I can hear my Thisbe’s face” — is here.) The sound quality could be better:
In the closing scene, the fairies return to the stage to sing (what is in the play) Oberon’s final speech, “Now until the break of day”. This is among Britten’s more beautiful and memorable creations, and it makes a nice finale (save Puck’s final words, which are cut from this clip):