Wednesday, September 28, 2016


Just the libretto, music and videos soon


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.


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