It is, perhaps, inevitable that a great English composer should fix upon a Shakespeare play as his inspiration for an opera.
Benjamin Britten had established his reputation with the opera Peter Grimes (1945): the story of a Suffolk fisherman driven to suicide by his own small community, and based on the poem by George Crabbe. It was a popular and critical success and Britten was hailed as the greatest operatic composer since Purcell.
He was extremely sensitive to text, often exploring a poem’s moods and styles in a wide variety of musical settings. The themes of night and sleep preoccupied him and he had juxtaposed real and supernatural worlds in The Turn of the Screw, his chamber opera based on Henry James’ novella. His Nocturne of 1958 consisted of eight self-chosen poems about night and dreaming, and concluded with Shakespeare’s Sonnet 43 : ‘When most I winke then doe mine eyes best see’.
When he decided in 1959 to write a new opera to open the Aldeburgh Festival of June 1960, it is unsurprising that he was drawn to the poetry and the magical content of Shakespeare’s play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. ‘The play …had a strong verbal music of its own’ he remarked.
Constrained by time limitations, he and his partner Peter Pears, produced the libretto themselves, working mainly from a Penguin edition (ed. G.B. Harrison, 1953). The completed libretto reduces the play to three acts, but losing none of the remaining text. Act 1 omits the expository material at Theseus’ court and begins in the enchanted wood. The action takes place in a single night. This was radical surgery and the librettists had to add the made-up line: ‘compelling thee to marry with Demetrius’, to clarify why Hermia and Lysander were running away from Athens in the first place.
Critical response to this restructuring was mixed .The deliberate omission of the opening scene and the establishment of the magic woodland setting as the opera’s norm, has been seen as weakening the dramatic justification of the last scene at court. To some, it appeared arbitrary and abrupt. Shakespeare’s plot, in contrast, sets out from normality, is developed in the enchanted wood but concludes in the normality with which it began. Trendier readings saw Britten’s wood as a place where characters might untangle issues that could not be resolved in society, and spoke of ‘withdrawal from and return to the autonomous self.’
Whatever the objections, the composer was unrepentant. ‘I do not feel in the least guilty at having cut the play in half.’ he stated. ‘The original Shakespeare…will survive.’ It has. For Britten, the unifying and controlling element was the magic of Oberon.
The opera opens in darkness: ‘The wood – dark night’, wrote Britten at the head of the score. Muted strings, rising and falling, set the slightly uncomfortable atmosphere as the wood awakes, apparently stretching and sighing, and signalling the arrival of supernatural beings whose power might equally be used for good or ill.
The music brilliantly depicts the different worlds of the play: harps, harpsichord and celesta are used for the fairies; strings and woodwind for the humans and bassoon and deeper brass for the rustics. The otherworldly – but not always benevolent -nature of the fairies is conveyed by boys’ voices – slightly harsher than those of girls – and Puck is cast as a speaking part, accompanied by drum and solo trumpet.
Britten cast Alfred Deller, the counter-tenor, as Oberon. This was both inspired and risky as a high, male, soprano-like voice was a novelty for many in the audience. The setting of ‘I know a bank’ manages to be magical and sinister in terms of sheer sound alone. When married to Shakespeare’s poetry it is – in the truest sense of the word – amazing. On a different level, this writer cannot omit mention of an incident following one of Deller’s concerts. A German woman approached him. ‘You are eunuch, Herr Deller?’ she enquired. ‘Madam,’ replied Deller ‘I am sure you mean unique.’
Like any great comedy, Britten’s Dream has a serious resolution: the lovers are united and harmony is restored. But this ending is achieved through magic and mystery, not through the cold operation of logic. The opera ends with the fairies’ chorus bestowing a sort of mystic or divine blessing upon the humans. We are returned to the real world by Puck who begs the indulgence of the audience.
Britten spoke subsequently of setting both King Lear and The Tempest, but ill health prevented him. What would we have had then?
We can only dream.
Bettina Harris, Library Support Assistant