Friday, September 30, 2016


It was a very good performance in 1981, but now it has aged


First the libretto.

There is little to say about the libretto of this opera adapted from the eponymous play by William Shakespeare. Their adaptation is essentially a shortening of the text but it is mostly a text that comes directly from Shakespeare’s play, hence in Shakespeare’s language which is poetical, musical and extremely rich, in the case of this comedy, in humor, even satire of both society and the practices or customs of the dramatic stage in Shakespeare’s time. The social criticism can be just implied though not directly expressed. It is the case of marriage practices. For both the wealthy and the powerful marriage was a family business: the father authorized, hence gave consent, to a marriage if it fitted his economic or social interests, particularly his influence and power.

This compulsory consent up to the age of twenty-one in a time when life expectancy was twenty nine years, was duly enforced with a minimum age for the marriage of girl in Shakespeare’s time between ten and thirteen with only one obligation: consent from the father, a parent, the guardian or some official if the previous ones were absent. In the play the law that is criticized is Athenian and the father can require death for a daughter who refuses to marry the man this father has chosen, with for the Duke of Athens the possibility to commute this death penalty into a life “imprisonment” in the temple of some goddess that will impose celibacy and virginity.

It is well understood that economically the men and the women are from the same social condition, meaning wealthy. That’s the part Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears cut off, hence the whole beginning of Shakespeare’s play. There will only be some allusions to it, especially at the end but it will have little value since the young people have solved their own problem with a little help from their friends the fairies. This choice is wise since such a situation does not speak to us any more except when we are considering the practice of forced marriages in some foreign civilizations and within the context of some religions in the world, particularly in the Moslem world.

The play starts in the forest and will stay in the forest till the second and last scene of the third act. This is also a wise choice because it makes the play even lighter than in Shakespeare’s version. It becomes a real entertainment that could be seen as a masque or even a pantomime due to the fairies and magic. Puck, Oberon and Titania are all beings of the underworld, which used to be a difficult subject in Elizabethan times, but which is today banal and common place though generally in children’s literature. Harry Potter is today a master in the field but he is not alone. Some may say that Harry Potter is not really for children but rather for young adults. Let’s say some people are precautious and we can consider a fifteen year old person either an older child or a younger person, not yet an adult but not far from it. The text of the libretto is very systematically ambiguous between a sexy reading or just a farcical reading. Of course as soon as it is set to a stage some choices are necessary that make this ambiguity either a pun-like discourse, playing on words, or a choice towards one interpretation. That’s why we can hesitate in front of this libretto: is it a children’s piece of literature and entertainment, or is it a farce based on innuendo, ambiguous meanings and erotic situations and language. That’s the main merit of this libretto. It really let the conductor and director free to go one way or the other.

One thing is sure in the libretto. Since most of the opera takes place in the underworld, in a forest, during one night, the midsummer night, Saint John’s day and night, with celebrations generally around or on the Summer solstice, a festive period in the fertile and happy direction, we can consider we are in foreign territory and thus we, the audience, are the foreigners. But in this foreign territory we have four young people, two women and two men, who are spending the night there more or less by accident and who are going to be the victims of tricks, pranks and mistakes from Puck and Oberon. These four are the first group of foreigners, or strangers. The second group counts six artisans, craftsmen or tradesmen from Athens who are preparing a play for the Duke’s marriage. They will also be the victims, particularly Bottom who is bottomless or without any bottom, who is turned into an ass, meaning a donkey, but also a synonym of bottom, to satisfy Oberon’s revenge on Titania who has estranged him from her bed because she refuses to yield a young infant or child she has recuperated from some Indian queen, hence in Shakespeare’s time, a child that would be assumed to be a gypsy child. The six tradesmen are foreigners or strangers in the forest, but the infant who is at stake between Oberon and Titania is a real foreigner both in fairyland and in Athens, in human land.

But in Shakespeare’s time fairies and fairyland would have been seen, understood and even by some resented as some strange and foreign underworld not to be mentioned. This dimension disappears in modern times and Benjamin Britten and his partner Peter Pears (who sang the part of Lysander, one of the two young men lost in the forest) play on this fairyland as an estrangement for the audience and the last scene brings the audience back to earth with yet another estrangement with the play in the play that brings on the stage a lion, talking mind you, the moon, also talking and a wall that has a lot to say. Estrangement inside the bringing back of the audience from a long and previous estrangement of another sort, more magical. The whole play works because of these dimensions and the opera here amplifies this aspect by cutting off the opening part in the Duke’s palace in Athens.

In other words, a good libretto for a modern opera that can be read in many different ways.

Second then the opera and the music.

The way this libretto is used in this old adaptation of the opera by Glyndebourne Festival Opera is interesting, first because it is a classic in the history of this opera, and second because it is good in its period and in its style. It obviously has great qualities in its realistic adaptation. The forest is a real forest but it would be static. So to make the forest dynamic; able to recompose itself constantly the trees are human beings, actors that can move around, and they do. This gives to a setting that would otherwise be slightly humdrum an attractiveness that wraps up the opera marvelously. It reduces the use of machine and machinery on the stage tremendously. In 1981 such machinery looked artificial and was limited in effect, even stiff at times. The choice here makes the stage fluid and very dynamic.

The fairies are boys but it is not essential in this production because they are not used separately. They are always part of a mass of people. They are heavily dressed but in no real particular striking way. Same thing with Puck who is a boy, good at doing his antics, tricks and so on, but not as good as he should be as for expressing with language, intonation and body language the emotions he is supposed to embody. He is the only one among the supernatural people who actually has some empathy for the humans and that requires a lot of experience to embody such emotions. In other words he is slightly too young.

Yet his flying is artificial enough to be credible. He goes up and down, as he says so well, on some kind of small platform that makes him move up and down and even cattycorner across the stage. It is a mechanical way of realizing what the libretto says when it makes Puck vanish or move from one side to the other of the stage invisibly.  

But the last scene at the Duke’s palace in Athens wants to be realistic too. That requires a change of setting during a musical intermezzo and that setting has to be changed later on with the play in the play that requires a platform to be performed. This is quite common on an opera stage but yet it is of an older style, something that is too realistic for modern tastes. To have people moving the setting around while the music goes on is fine when the setting is artificial, not realistic, when this setting is blocks on rollers and hardly anything else. Changing setting today is easier thanks to special effects and machinery, but yet it remains heavy. Another solution is a setting that contains everything and it is only a question of lights to concentrate on one part, one section of the stage, or another. This is often used in operas because that reduces setting changes to a minimum and lights are easy to manage.

But this realistic setting gives a good opportunity for Puck with his broom to become a real broom stick engineer and clean up, in fact sweep up, the vast table of the banquet.

But what is most dated if not outdated for an opera is the extreme stiffness of the actors who are singers and not actors actually, apart from Puck himself. That stiffness in body language, which is no real body language but some frozen postures and stances, accompanies the stiffness of the music. The music is performed as if it were very regular and frozen. I guess they stick to the score. But an opera is also a dramatic play and the actors and what they do, their acting, are supposed to dictate how the music is performed. Thus it could be slowed down or sped up according to the moments. It does not seem to be performed in such a flexible way.

One example is the quartet of the lovers in the first scene of the third act. The music is extremely good but the acting is stiff and that impairs the music itself. In fact the only moment when there is some animation on the stage is during the play in the play because then the actors are acting in a grotesque and caustic way. They are well obliged to have some body language when they are a wall, a lion, the moon or whatever and the dying mimics have to be just plain funny. Yet the final dance of these actors is stiff and the audience is not concerned, not associated, and that is a mistake. It should be a Bergomask in which everyone joins.

There is a last element I would like to add: it is the two typical mentions by Shakespeare of the “three sisters” and of the “triple Hecate’s dream.” It is typical of Shakespeare because for Shakespeare, and this is deeply rooted in his style, anything ternary is leading to turmoil, disorder and even tragic or dramatic elements. The three sisters are the Fates: The Moirai were three sister deities, incarnations of destiny and life. Their names were Clotho, the one who spins the thread of life; Lachesis, she who draws the lots and determines how long one lives, by measuring the thread of life; and Atropos, the inevitable, she who chose how someone dies by cutting the thread of life with her shears. In other words they are one incarnation of the triple goddess of fame in Europe and mythology. The second incarnation is of course the triple Hecate: Hecate goddess of the underworld and death; Selene Goddess of the moon, night and in a way love; finally Diana the goddess of life, procreation and birth. Note the disruptive third element in the Fairy Queen and King couple: the Indian child that comes in-between the two and creates the havoc that is the basic stuff of this play.

So this play is basically disquieting since it sets up the simultaneous marriages of three couples. Note that this triplet of couples is a perfect embodiment of David’s star or Solomon’s wisdom, hence an allusion to the Old Testament and the Jews. No surprise that it brings disturbance, since they are Jewish and Shakespeare is sweetly anti-Jewish, like most people in his time. Note Shakespeare cannot close the play on such a disquieting note and he adds the re-union of Oberon and Titania as a fourth couple after he fate of the Indian child is solved and a binary, what’s more a double binary, what’s more a triple binary structure is perfection and order for Shakespeare: 2-4-8 is the vision of perfection. In this play and opera it is slightly artificial but in “As you Like It” Shakespeare makes it perfect with four human couples marrying under the presiding presence of the god of matrimony, Hymen.

If we keep this in mind we can strengthen the remark about the stiffness of the whole performance. It is true Oberon is crucial but unluckily James Bowman, who sings his part very well, is a very straight and unbending actor. His acting performance is very little fluid and versatile. That’s another time on the opera stage but it is regrettable for this opera that requires a tremendous versatility and changeability.


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