Tuesday, March 24, 2009


Most people who go to A Midsummer Night’s Dream identify with the four young lovers, Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius. For them, the magical forest is a sort of “School of Love,” like you often find in opera comedies: all four head for the forest when overwhelmed by wild passion; they get into all sorts of terrible trouble while there (amusing Puck, and many generations of audiences, to no end); and eventually they emerge from the forest, a little wiser and more mature.

Like the lovers’ quartet in that other great “School of Love” opera Così fan tutte (another favorite of ours at Seattle Opera’s Young Artists Program!), part of the joke is that it’s hard to tell these young people apart. “I’ll take the tenor, you take the baritone,” we had the two sisters say (in our supertitles) the last time we produced Così. And that’s really about the size of it: Helena is a soprano, Hermia a mezzo; Lysander is a tenor, Demetrius a baritone. The girls are easier to distinguish because Helena is (theoretically) taller than Hermia; also, Helena is a lot more masochistic (and usually gets more laughs, and more audience sympathy) than Hermia. With the boys, it’s anybody’s guess which is which. It’s brilliant of Shakespeare to make them interchangeable, because it’s so true to human life. You know the type: they’re around twenty years old, they wear hoodies and jeans everyday, have iPods permanently attached to their ears, carefully cropped beard-stubble, and do their utmost to look like and speak like all the other guys.

So rather than create strongly individual music for each of them, Britten treats them musically as one character. At the beginning of the opera, when they’re all wild emotion (Helena loves Demetrius, who loves Hermia, who loves Lysander, who—-for the time being—-requites Hermia’s illicit passion), Britten gives the mezzo and tenor a bizarre duet of vows and protestations: a couple in love, not with each other, but with love itself:
I swear to thee, by Cupid's strongest bow,
By his best arrow with the golden head,
By the simplicity of Venus' doves,
By that which knitteth souls and prospers loves,
And by that fire which burn'd the Carthage queen,
When the false Troyan under sail was seen,
By all the vows that ever men have broke...

(Ruby Philogene and John Mark Ainsley; Colin Davis with the London Symphony Orchestra, Philips 454 122-2)

Do you hear how each time one interrupts the other to begin a new vow, they introduce a new harmony? Musically, that’s an extremely rude thing to do when someone’s trying to sing a duet with you! Britten uses it here to show how little attention Hermia and Lysander are paying to each other.

Matters devolve, from that duet, to the great quartet of chaos that comes mid-way through Act Two. At this point in the story, things are hopelessly confused: both boys have magically fallen out of love with Hermia and in love with Helena, and the two girls, former friends, blame each other. Britten sets the scene as a kind of fugue, with all four voices overlapping, the words coming at break-neck speed:

Lovers' Quarrel

(Janice Watson, Ruby Philogene, John Mark Ainsley, and Paul Whelan; Philips 454 122-2)

Musically that quartet is an enormous challenge-—and it doesn’t make it any easier when you’ve got a Director like Peter Kazaras, who’s asked our singers to have a pillow-fight while they sing this complicated music! The lovers’ Act Three quartet, sung after waking up to sunlit maturity, is less frantic, although its long soaring melodies pose a different kind of challenge:

“And I have found Demetrius like a jewel: mine own, and not mine own...”

(Janice Watson, Ruby Philogene, John Mark Ainsley, and Paul Whelan; Philips 454 122-2)

Above, the reconciled lovers at Glyndebourne Opera in 2006.

In Seattle Opera’s Young Artists production, baritone Michael Krzankowski sings Demetrius, tenor Bray Wilkins sings Lysander, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Pojanowski sings Hermia, and sopranos Vira Slywotzky and Michelle Trovato share the role of Helena.

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