Friday, March 20, 2009

Entering Britten's Magical Forest

Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream begins in the sunlight court of Theseus, Duke of Athens, and, famously, the action only really gets going when everybody heads for a nearby magical forest. After a wild night of mischief, misunderstandings, and mayhem they return to the court the next morning: so the action of the play has been a journey into the forest, into the dream, the night, the moonlight, the unconscious, and then a return; there and back again.

But when Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears adapted Shakespeare's play for the libretto of their opera, they cut the entire opening scene. Their opera begins in that unconscious forest of dreaming, and Britten opens his opera with one of music's most marvelous depictions of sleep, with the entire string section snoring in yawning glissandos, as we the audience enter this magical forest:

A Midsummer Night's Dream: Opening of Act One

(Colin Davis and London Symphony Orchestra, Philips 454 122-2)

By opening his opera with that music, and taking us immediately into that magical forest, Britten turns Shakespeare's there-and-back-again journey inside out. Britten's is a post-Freudian Dream, where the unconscious world is in the foreground. All his operas criss-cross some boundary between two worlds: the ship and the sea, in Billy Budd, or the living and the dead, in Turn of the Screw. In Midsummer Night's Dream, we emerge from the dream-world of the forest only for the final scene at the court of Theseus; and even that scene concludes, when all the mortals have gone to bed, with the return of the fairies, who scatter dust, magic, dreams, and benedictions throughout the house.


  1. Love the SO blog! Thanks, too, for helping me learn to a bit of Britten's Midsummer music.

  2. You have such a nice blog. I love watching all of those beautiful pictures! And even more, I like reading the stories behind them. Thank you for sharing this :) I work as an editor for so when I am free, I love to read your blog.