Saturday, October 01, 2016


A midsummer Night's dream that is a real blissful pleasure


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 the opera and the music.

From the very start we know we are going to be in an innovative approach. No realism at all. The setting is a vast inclined green surface cattycorner on the stage in the shape of a vast bed with two enormous pillows on the left. Green like the forest, a bed like sleeping and dreaming and a vast surface that enables the actors, and they are going to be actors, to do all their antics unrestrained.

The fairies are all boys and of course trebles. They are dressed in a very particular way, all of them the same: some kind of grayish and greenish hair, a greenish mustache, a green long tail tuxedo, blue pants and red gloves. They act in various ways but always organized in a clear fashion, a line or several lines, or groups, etc. They are twenty and can divide in groups of four or five easily.

The surprise comes with Puck who is a lot older than the other fairies. The producer wanted an actor able to be very expressive in body language and he is. He also has to be acrobatic because of the type of action he takes. He is only walking on his two feet but when he is supposed to disappear he runs to the top left corner of the inclined surface and just jumps or dives in a way or another behind the green surface. That makes him natural and in no way laughable. He is the basic empathetic character who reverberates in his action and expression, face, language and body, the emotions he may feel and the people he is dealing with are feeling. He is like a grotesque mirror of the characters. In spite of the surprise due to his age, we very fast get acquainted to him and he becomes natural. He will end more or less attached to the big red curtain at the end as if he were climbing on that curtain like a cat or something.

The colors of the fairies are of course symbolical of the fairyland they live in; Oberon is dressed in green, Titania in blue and the Indian child, who is of course not a real child since it is only a prop in this production, is red. This touch of red in an essentially green and blue world is quite striking and it is perfect for the disturbing third element that the Indian baby is.

That’s when the human characters come in and they are systematically going to be dressed in one color essentially, some creamy white in-between pearl and vanilla custard. In other words they are going to stick out like so many sore thumbs. These are the noble or wealthy people. The craftsmen or tradesmen are dressed more casually but mostly in the brown range. For the play in the play they will be dressed in some funny ancient way like Romans with togas of various shapes and length and all in some whitish light material.

The first act then is just played on this green surface and the big pillows can be uncovered from the green sheet covering the vast surface and the landscape becomes a real giant bed in which some can go to sleep. The two couples have many props representing their travelling: an umbrella that can become a weapon, a hat box that can contains other props, etc. The actors are dropping them everywhere and using them defensively, aggressively, or whatever, but they always pick them up at the end of each sequence. Do not litter please. Very English.

Note that Oberon, when Titania is asleep in the big green bed with her Indian child, steals the baby once and for all which will justify what he will say later that he has the child and thus can play round, have his revenge, etc

The second act will still use the vast green inclined surface for the forest, entirely covered by the green sheet and the two big pillows have gone. But seven beds have been installed in some kind of geometrical order, four in the front and three in the back. The very disposition of these green beds is fascinating. The whole action is happening in these beds and on these beds. Titania and her ass paramour are going from one bed to the next to finally end up in one bed at the back. The game played by these two is deeply visually obscene with an extremely well endowed Bottom-ass and the fairies who are supposed to scratch the ass’s head and back are acting like disgusted children who do it because they have been ordered to do it but not with any kind of willingness and enthusiasm. They despise this ass whose head they have to scratch. One even puts dark plastic surgical gloves on to do it.

The human couples are finally brought in and they are guided by Puck to the four front beds in proper order, alternating the men and the women and preparing the re-union of the expected lovers and couples, Hermia next to Lysander, Helena next to Demetrius. Since they have been fighting in the forest and had already been soiled with green stains on their clothes and props, they reappear to be put to bed in their body clothing vastly tainted with green and in tatters.

At the end of the second act we thus have the four humans in the front beds and in the three back beds from let to right we have Puck, all the fairies piled up on the middle bed and Titania and her ass in the bed on the right.

The third act is still in the forest for the first scene which is the awakening of the three sleeping couples and the end of Oberon’s revenge. A big frontal red curtain had been dropped in front of the setting to enable the changes in the disposition of beds and actors. The inclined surface is all green and there are only three beds suspended in mid air. From left to right, first the two human couples reunified and then on the right Titania and her ass.

The action, starts with Oberon and Titania. Her bed is brought down and Oberon gets even with her. He is carrying the baby and will drag it on the floor at the end of the scene like and as the prop it is. Then the two human couples will come down and strangely enough their tattered body clothing has been transformed in clean white undergarments, both men and women.

After Bottom’s flashback on when he was an ass, the fairies make the three beds very neatly, five fairies per bed and the beds dragging up the whole green sheet of the ground go up and away into the sky. The stage is now still an inclined surface but white and the last scene at the Duke’s palace can take place. First the three married couples and then the play in the play. This last moment in the opera is essential since it is a farce and it mocks romantic passion and is supposed to make its audience laugh at the silly performance. The actors come on stage in their underwear and they will drape themselves in white sheets of various sizes. The wall has a chink but it is not between two fingers. The director made the wall vast by draping a sheet over long sticks held by the actor, on both sides with the pattern of stones and the chink is a black hole positioned in a provocative and obscene place both front and back right in the middle of the actor carrying that wall. It is farcical of course and funny. The acting is perfect in that line and the bergomask is transformed into a general dance for all the people on the stage including the nobles and the wealthy.

That leads us to midnight and the three couples of lovers are sent to bed by the Duke. The fairies and Puck take over, the fairies marching in from left to right in five lines, five, then five, then four, then four and finally two in front right: this geometrical order is interesting because it emphasizes the slanting ground on which they operate. Puck comes in with his broom to clean up and the twenty fairies bring in Oberon and Titania. Five fairies on each side of Oberon and Titania, hence twenty in four groups. The reconciliation is complete and Puck can climb on the curtain to give us his final epilogue.

This is exactly what we expect from this opera. The music is extremely dynamic and varied in tone and tempo and it sounds as if at times it became hysterical, super dense and dynamic accompanying the action perfectly. You will also recognize some groups of notes now and then because quite a few allusions to existing musical melodies or tunes are used by Britten. It is never a full sentence but just a few notes sounding like some tunes you know.

This is in full agreement with the strange ternary ending of the three married couples that is evened by a fourth couple re-united at last. Three meaning disruption, Shakespeare could not end on such a situation and this disruptive ending is softened and sweetened into some equilibrium by the fourth couple. Shakespeare used that pattern in “As You Like It” but this time with four couples getting married under the supervision and blessing of the god of marriage, Hymen. We also have to see that this production emphasizes the ternary pattern in the forest in the first scene of the third act with three beds for the three couples. Once again it could not be the end because of the disruptive nature of this ternary pattern. But it is a good thing the stage direction and setting put that ternary figure forward.

In other words and to conclude let me say this production is what we can today expect from such an opera: a very visual and abstract vision, a dream in other words that is built on simple symbolism based on Shakespeare’s style and architecture. The vision has to be pure patterns that become significant by their constant presence with the contradiction between the ternary and the quaternary figures. This is amplified by other elements like colors or the actors of the play in the play who are six for sure, one playing director and the others acting, the couple of lovers being trapped by three farcical elements, the moon (itself ternary: the man, the bush and the dog in the moon), the lion and the wall, absolute confusion and disorder that will cause the dramatic death of both lovers in the famous Romeo and Juliet way. The director of the play, Peter Quine is of course the balancing element but the balancing is based on six characters, three humans and three animal or props. We can of course see in this pattern a common trait of anti-Semitism which was very standard in Shakespeare’s time though Shakespeare very often made it light or not too dramatic with the two exceptions of Titus Andronicus and Othello.

Finally this production clearly makes humans foreigners and strangers in the forest by being in the creamy color range against the green, blue and red surrounding colors. And vice versa for the fairies in the Duke’s palace. The tradesmen are the strangers or foreigners or outsiders in both the forest and the Duke’s palace, being brownish in the forest and plain white in the Duke’s palace. These colors are emphasized by the styles of the clothes of the characters. We thus have three “worlds” that are foreigners, strangers and outsiders to one another in the various locales in the opera.


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