Sunday, March 22, 2009


Because Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream may be unfamiliar to Seattle audiences, I thought I’d use this blog, over the next few days, to introduce this opera's characters and some of its music. (You may already know the characters, since Shakespeare’s play is performed and studied frequently here in Seattle!) If you’re like me, you’ll find Britten’s music attractive enough at first, but not necessarily overwhelming; but then, on a second or third hearing, something will click, and a slow-burn affection will burst into wildfire enthusiasm.

When he wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in 1959 and 1960, Britten had just taken a trip around the world which greatly broadened his already-broad musical interests. In particular he had been blown away on hearing the Balinese Gamelon orchestra, in Indonesia, and by going to traditional noh drama, in Japan. Techniques and tricks from these Asian musical and dramatic traditions influenced the way he wrote operas after that. Also, in Midsummer, Britten wanted to create a musical world as rich and diverse as the real world he had just explored. Shakespeare’s cast list, with its three contrasting groups of Fairies, Aristocrats, and Rude Mechanicals, gave him the opportunity to explore, as it were, three distinct musical nations. Britten’s own cast list for Midsummer ended up including every voice type available in 1960.

His music for the Fairies was the most unusual, as it featured the countertenor voice, which had emerged as the early music movement gathered steam after World War II. Britten wrote the role of Oberon, King of the Fairies, for Alfred Deller, whom you can hear on the Decca/London recording conducted by Britten. A countertenor is a male singer who’s developed his falsetto range, and so can sing notes usually sung by an alto or contralto. Britten’s choice gives Oberon a fascinatingly unsettling sound, beyond male and female, a dream-spirit of pure libido. Britten also writes for him extremely lush music, as when he describes Tytania’s forest bed-bower: “And there the snake throws her enamell’d skin, / Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in.”

from Oberon’s aria “I know a bank”

(Brian Asawa; with Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra, Philips 454 122-2)

ABOVE: Rupert Everett as Oberon and Michelle Pfeiffer as Titania in the 1999 film of Midsummer by Michael Hoffmann

To make a fitting consort for this strange creature, Britten turned to the coloratura soprano. Tytania, the Fairy Queen, is Oberon’s wife and enemy (as the opera begins). Her lover is Nick Bottom, the guy with the ass’s head, played by the bass: so in their love scene you get the highest voice mating with the lowest voice:

BOTTOM: Let none of your people stir me; I have an exposition of sleep come upon me.
TYTANIA: Sleep thou, and I will wind thee in my arms.
Fairies begone, and be all ways away.
So doth the woodbine the sweet honeysuckle
Gently entwist...

(Robert Lloyd and Sylvia McNair, Philips 454 122-2)

Do you hear, in that example, how the clarinet illustrates the twisting of the vines Tytania describes? I love the verdant sensuality of the music Britten wrote for Shakespeare’s verdant, sensual language with Oberon and Tytania. But our other principal Fairy character, Puck (left, as illustrated by Arthur Rackham), is anything but verdant and sensual. Puck is full of irony and mischief, and Britten calls for his role not to be sung, but spoken instead, by an actor. Musically, his character is denoted by the jazzy trumpet and drums that always accompany him:

Puck: “Through the forest have I gone”

(Carl Ferguson, Philips 454 122-2)

Our Seattle Opera Young Artists Program production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream will star Anthony Roth Costanzo, recent winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Councils Award, as Oberon; Young Artist Megan Hart and Young Artist Alum Emily Hindrichs as Tytania; and the talented Seattle actor David Hogan (most recently seen as Ishmael in Book-It’s Moby-Dick) as Puck.

Come back to this blog tomorrow to continue exploring the marvelous musical world of Britten’s Midsummer!

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