A Midsummer Night's Dream

An Opera by Benjamin Britten

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended:
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear….

Puck, A Midsummer Night's Dream

About

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (MSND) is an appealing opera in part because of how flexible it is. On the simplest level it is an evening of sheer enchantment, a traditional fairytale with plenty of comedy. On another it is a psychological treasure trove, purity, madness and cruelty crashing against each other to riveting effect. For the music buff it is also filled with musical homage and satire, from Baroque through Schoenberg, referencing many classic works particularly in the riotous play within a play of “Pyramus and Thisbe”.

In adapting Shakespeare’s MSND Britten stuck to the original play text extremely closely. All the characters bar two (Egeus and Philostrate) make the cut, resulting in an opera with a diverse and lively range of characters (nearly 20!). These characters divide into three groups, each with a largely separate plot as in Shakespeare's play. Britten captures these disparate narratives with contrasting sound worlds. From the ethereal beauty of the fairies to the rough and tumble of the Mechanicals.

The first appearance of the fairies. Met Opera, 1995
The mechanicals arrive in the forest. Met Opera, 1995

Ultimately it's an evening of pure magic. A show that rewards repeat viewings whilst still managing to be instantly accessible. Genuinely funny, particularly in the final act, and featuring two pairs of young lovers (as well as a brief Donkey/Fairy pairing) it’s a deliciously romantic evening too.

Fairy Song, Arthur Rackham
Fairy Song, Arthur Rackham's Illustrations for A Midsummer Night's Dream

Characters

Britten's MSND has an enormous number of characters by operatic standards and it is also unusual in that so many of them are prominent. There is no dominant role with all the characters getting their moment, though Oberon, Tytania and Bottom in particular have plenty of opportunities to shine. Don't worry if it seems like a lot to remember, one of the joys of this opera is just how enjoyable it is even when you've lost the plot!

The Fairy flew off with the changeling, Arthur Rackham
A fairy flew off with the changeling, Arthur Rackham

The Fairies

NameVocal TypeDescription
OberonCountertenorThe king of the fairies. Oberon guides the narrative through his servant Puck. An otherworldly force who can be more than a little creepy.
TytaniaSopranoThe queen of the fairies. A force to be reckoned with though she is dominated by Oberon. Falls for Bottom as a result of a love potion to hilarious effect.
PuckSpokenA mischievous sprite who does the bidding of Oberon (to sometimes unintended effect). Puck acts without thought for others but acts essentially innocently.
CobwebTrebleThe first of Tytania's four fairy servants. Usually sung by a boy treble but occasionally by a female singer.
MustardseedTrebleThe second of Tytania's four fairy servants. Usually sung by a boy treble but occasionally by a female singer.
MothTrebleThe third of Tytania's four fairy servants. Usually sung by a boy treble but occasionally by a female singer.
PeaseblossomTrebleThe fourth of Tytania's four fairy servants. Usually sung by a boy treble but occasionally by a female singer.
Helena and Hermia, Arthur Rackham
Helena and Hermia, Arthur Rackham

The Royalty

NameVocal TypeDescription
LysanderTenorLysander loves Hermia though she is engaged to his friend Demetrius. Flees Athens with Hermia before the opera begins.
DemetriusBaritoneDemetrius is engaged to Hermia having been previously engaged to Helena. His cruelty to Helena in front of Oberon sets the play's events in motion.
HermiaMezzo-sopranoLoves Lysander but is betrothed to Demetrius. She and Lysander are fleeing into the forest together at the start of the opera to escape the wrath of her father (who wants her to marry Demetrius).
HelenaSopranoA friend of Hermia who was previously engaged to Demetrius before he called it off to marry Hermia. She still loves Demetrius despite this...
TheseusBassThe Duke of Athens (the chap who slayed the minotaur in Greek legend). A small role in Britten's adaptation only appearing in Act III.
HippolytaContraltoThe queen of the Amazons. Hippolyta is to marry Theseus. A small role in Britten's adaptation only appearing in Act III.
Quince's House, Arthur Rackham
Quince's House, Arthur Rackham

The mechanicals

NameVocal TypeDescription
BottomBass baritoneNick Bottom, the weaver. He provides considerable comic relief, particularly when he gains his donkey's head and frolics with Tytania. Plays Pyramus in the play within the play.
QuinceBassThe leader of the mechanicals troupe though Bottom often rides roughshod over his opinions.
FluteTenorA bellow-mender excited by the prospect of acting in a play. Takes the role of Thisbe, Pyramus's female lover!
SnugBassA joiner who is timid and a bit thick. Plays the lion that (rather sweetly) fails to eat Thisbe.
SnoutTenorA tinker who plays the hilarious role of Wall (which he does badly as he's so nervous).
StarvelingBaritoneThe tailor who plays the part of moon. He does this with a lantern, and is much mocked for it by the Athenians.

Synopsis

Act I - Running Time: 50 mins

It is night in the woods outside Athens. Oberon argues with Tytania over a young changeling boy (Oberon wants him for a knight whilst Tytania wants to keep him as his mother was one of her servants). Refusing to give the boy up, Tytania leaves. Oberon calls Puck and sends him to find a magical flower. The juice of this flower has the power to make anyone fall in love with the next person they see. Oberon plans to sprinkle this juice on Tytania’s eyes as she sleeps, and then take the boy for himself.

Tytania and Oberon, Houston Grand Opera

We next meet Lysander, Hermia, Demetrius and Helena. They are variously fleeing/chasing into the woods and form something of a love chain. This unhappy group is overheard by Oberon who instructs Puck to fix the group by making Demetrius fall for Helena (using the magic flower).

The Quartet at the start of the opera

We now meet our third and final group, the six “mechanicals” or “rustics” (basically working class men). They are preparing to perform a play for the wedding of Theseus (Duke of Athens) to Hippolyta (Queen of the Amazons). They fuss over the casting, Bottom's shenanigans setting off hilarity, but eventually all is settled and they agree to meet later the same night to rehearse.

The Mechanicals in the Metropolitan Opera Production
The mechanicals, Metropolitan Opera

Lost and totally exhausted Hermia and Lysander fall asleep in the woods. Puck appears and thinking he has found Demetrius sprinkles the juice on Lysander. Demetrius arrives pursued by Helena but angrily dismisses her. Helena is distraught and seeing Lysander moves to wake him. Surprise, surprise he awakens and instantly falls in love. Helena runs off thinking Lysander is making fun of her, Lysander chases after and Hermia awakens to find herself all alone.

Nearby, Tytania begins to sleep. Oberon appears and places the juice on her eyes.

The Quartet after Puck's mischief

Act II - Running Time: 50 mins

The mechanicals meet later that same day for a rehearsal. They begin but are soon spotted by Puck who decides to work some mischief. He transforms Bottom’s head into that of a donkey causing the other mechanicals to flee in fear (much to Bottom’s confusion). Left alone Bottom sings to himself awakening the nearby Tytania.

The juice works its magic and she instantly falls in love with him! In a stunningly funny sequence she seduces him to bed with some help (and head scratching) from the fairies.

Tytania leads Bottom away, Metropolitan Opera
Tytania leads Bottom away, Metropolitan Opera

Oberon is elated to find his plan for Tytania has worked so well but his pleasure quickly dissipates when Demetrius enters chasing Hermia. Puck has not completed his task! Demetrius falls asleep (the characters in MSND have a real penchant for sleeping...) and Oberon drips the juice on his eyes.

Unfortunately things get even worse when Helena and Lysander come hurtling in, waking Demetrius who promptly falls in love with Helena. Hermia enters and is swiftly rejected by Lysander which only enrages Helena more as she thinks the other three are mocking her.

An even greater loving debacle

Oberon is now angry with Puck and instructs him to sort the couples out. Puck then leads the four away through the woods, applying the needed juice and antidote to them as they fall asleep.

Puck beats Oberon, ENO
Oberon (Iestyn Davies) beats Puck, English National Opera

Act III - Running Time: 55 mins

It is nearly dawn. Oberon rouses Tytania, freeing her from the flower’s spell. The four lovers awaken, finally happily paired off. Bottom awakens with his head returned to normal, he thinks it has only been a dream but a very strange dream at that. The other mechanicals who have been searching for Bottom come across him as he announces that their play is to be performed at court.

Bottom's Dream sung by Matthew Rose.
Bottom's Dream, Annie Opera
Bottom's dream, Cuddigan Opera

We leave the woods for Athens. It is Theseus and Hippolyta's wedding day. The mechanicals deliver their ludicrous (and hilarious) Pyramus and Thisbe for the three couples.

As the humans head to sleep... the fairies bid us goodbye.

Finale, Central City Opera

Major Arias

NameSung byExcerpt
Be kind and courteousTytania
Flower of this purple dyeOberon
I am your spanielHelena
I know a bank where the wild thyme blowsOberon
Injurious HermiaHelena
When my cue comes, call meBottom

History

Operas aren’t things that generally get written over night, it took Britten several years in most cases. MSND however, was something of a rush job, going from conception to opening night in well under a year. The Jubilee Hall in Aldeburgh was undergoing a complete refurbishment and to celebrate its opening and the 1960 Aldeburgh Festival (Britten’s own festival) a new opera was required. For various reasons this wasn’t settled upon until late summer 1959 leaving Britten an extremely tight schedule.

It was partly then, for practical reasons that Britten and Pears settled upon Shakespeare’s play. “There was no time to get a libretto writ­ten, so we took one that was ready to hand. I have always loved A Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream.” The practical dimension of the decision should not be overstated however, Britten didn’t do anything without reason and there are many themes in the play that fit with Britten’s ethos and work. Since writing "On This Island" with W. H. Auden, Britten had regularly returned to the subject of dreams and darkness whilst innocence was a subject that preoccupied him throughout his life.

Jubilee Hall in Aldeburgh
Jubilee Hall in Aldeburgh

With the libretto swiftly assembled, Britten set about writing the score. He did so steadily, though he suffered bouts of depression over the winter. His health was uneven; gout, tendonitis and bursitis all plaguing him over the course of the year. Nor was he helped by Imogen Holst, his music assistant, being rushed to hospital with suspected appendicitis and told to take six weeks rest after the resulting operation.

The music came together in time but the opening was then threatened by Alfred Deller, the first Oberon (see his fun fact for more), fearing he was inadequately prepared for the acting in an opera little helped by John Cranko’s apparently poor direction (He was a ballet choreographer with limited opera directing experience).

Everything came together to a near total success. Frank Howes of the Times of London described it as "a major opera of the size and qual­ity to fol­low Peter Grimes around the world", and it did indeed soon find its way around the world. The Royal Opera would produce it the year after its premiere and MSND was rapidly taken up abroad (not infrequently in translation), becoming a part of the international standard repertory.

Fun Facts

Oberon

Today countertenors have more or less joined the lineup alongside Tenors, Baritones and Basses but this is a actually a very recent phenomenon. The steady rise of this vocal type was predominantly in Renaissance and Baroque music until Britten wrote Oberon for Alfred Deller, the leading countertenor of the mid 20th Century. This was a startling innovation for 20th Century opera, leading men were generally tenors, and Britten would go on to write one further significant countertenor role, The voice of Apollo in Death in Venice.

An hilarious anecdote relating to the then novelty of Deller’s voice comes from the late Robert Tear: a German woman asked Deller,

‘You are eunuch, Herr Deller?’

To which Deller replied,

‘I’m sure you mean unique, madam.’

MSND in Music

Britten was far from the only composer to have adapted Shakespeare’s MSND. Henry Purcell produced The Fairy Queen, a series of masques intertwined with a bowdlerized MSND text and Felix Mendelssohn wrote a concert overture as well as incidental music for the play. This Mendelssohn music contains possibly one of the most recognisable tunes ever written: the Wedding March.

the Wedding March

Cuts

Britten and Pears adapted their libretto from Shakespeare’s text by editing heavily but they added only one line, “com­pelling thee to marry with Demetrius” which quickly clarifies the plot in Act I. Britten described the process, “to get it into man­age­able shape, which basi­cally entailed sim­pli­fy­ing and cut­ting an extremely com­plex story…I do not feel in the least guilty at hav­ing cut the play in half. The orig­i­nal Shake­speare will survive.”

Magic Flowers

Viola Tricolor
The Viola tricolor

Much of the drama in MSND hinges on a magical, love inducing flower. This flower is called “Love-in-idleness” (though the name is not mentioned in Britten’s reduced text), and is said to have been a white flower struck by cupid’s arrow causing it to turn purple and produce love potion. “Love-in-idleness” is actually one of many names for a real flower the Viola Tricolor, a sort of pansy. It is mentioned in several of Shakespeare’s plays including The Taming of the Shrew and is probably also the pansy that Ophelia refers to in Hamlet, “There's pansies, that's for thoughts”.

The play within a play

While Oberon takes music that seems to harken to Purcell and the forest music has a twelve tone undercurrent it is the play within a play that sees Britten at his most wittily reverential. Pyramus first enters to a tune not unlike the “Miserere” from Verdi's Il Trovatore. The Lion roars to a polka and Thisbe kills herself to a Victorian ballad. To top it off, Thisbe’s mad aria is a quite brilliant parody of Lucia di Lammermoor.

In Brief

  • Name A Midsummer Night's Dream
  • Composer Benjamin Britten
  • Librettist Shakespeare adapted by Britten and Peter Pears
  • Language English
  • Date of premiere June 11, 1960
  • Number of Acts 3
  • Music length 2 hours, 35 minutes

Quiz

Recordings

MSND is to our minds one of the most underappreciated of all operas. This isn't to say it isn't popular but considering its accessibility, wit and sophistication: there are fewer recordings and dvds than you might hope.

Original CD

The definitive recording, conducted by Britten himself with Dellar as Oberon. Unlike at the premiere Pears takes the larger part of Lysander. Arguably one of Britten's best recordings of his own works!

Glyndebourne DVD

Peter Hall's 1981 Glyndebourne production is delightful, Hall made MSND a cornerstone of his career, and this cast can seldom have been bettered.


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