My first night during this brief autumnal sojourn in Vienna, city of dreams was simply a delight. Boasting four venues for opera (among ballet, musicals and operetta) the legendary Staatsoper is by far and away one of the great opera houses of the world. Indeed this year it celebrates its 150th anniversary of the “new house” at the Opernring in the heart of the city – a stone’s-throw from Kärtnerstrasse and the glorious Stephansdom.
Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream has inspired great music by composers from Henry Purcell to Benjamin Britten, including Weber, Ambroise Thomas and Mendelssohn. Purcell’s The Fairy Queen and Mendelssohn’s incidental music, (which I reviewed last year from the Volksoper) are the best known settings of Shakespeare’s amusing romantic and fanciful tale. Fallen into oblivion is Ambroise Thomas’ Falstaff (an opera-comique with Shakespeare as anti-hero and the monarch Elizabeth I of England). Better known is Weber’s Oberon in English though based on German poetry and literary sources rather than Shakespeare.
Weaned as I was, on Britten’s own recording of his complete opera on Decca my visit to the Staatsoper was a revelation. Rarely have I heard English-language opera (not everybody’s cup of tea) more convincingly presented.
The libretto by Benjamin Britten and his partner Peter Pears from the original play by Shakespeare was set to music in 1960. The original play written in a significant period in European history, the end of the Renaissance and the unfolding of the Reformation is ground-breaking. Britten’s opera is updated to the modern world where processes of rationalization and disenchantment appear to be endorsed. Such modes of influencing are often genuinely “charming” or “magical”. They rely on the power of images and on theatre-like performances taking place under special conditions (as at the Opera). The central problem in this play is the source of the power that motivates, from the inside, human beings. Shakespeare attributes this power to images through which humans can be incited to act, in particular to fall in love, and assigns a decisive role in the manipulation of such images to the Trickster figure of folk-tales and myths (in this case Puck).
Act I opens with Britten’s characteristic night music with slithering string glissandi. It is a starry night in the enchanted woods outside Athens. Oberon and Tytania argue over the possession of a young changeling boy. Oberon’s appearance breaks the opening fairies’ chorus (consisting of young boys alone) by a trumpet fanfare. Oberon summons Puck after Tytania leaves to order him to find a magical flower the juice of which has the power to make any one fall in love with the next person they see.
The plan is to sprinkle Tytania’s eyes with this juice. Next we meet the young quartet of lovers 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).
In short it is a veritable French farce popular in the 18th century, predated by Shakespeare in his Elizabethan comedies. Demetrius and Hermia are engaged to be married but Hermia loves Lysander who reciprocates her love. However Demetrius still loves Hermia and Helena is desperately keen on Demetrius.
The pair of lovers (Lysander played by tenor Josh Lovell and Hermia, mezzo Rachel Frenkel) sings the love music rapturously. Demetrius enters chased by star soprano Valentina Naforniţa as Helena. Demetrius shows great disinterest in spite of her pleadings on bended knee of her everlasting love. Costumed by Magali Castellan the four young lovers wore preppy in appearance. Lysander in public school jacket, Demetrius in suspenders with bag pack, the two girls in skirts, Hermia red-headed and pretty, Helena school-marmy and bespectacled.
Still in act I we meet our third and final group the six “mechanicals” or “rustics” (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, with much hilarity from Bottom and they plan to meet later that night to rehearse.
Puck mistakens the sleeping Lysander to be Demetrius and sprinkles the juice on his eyes. Demetrius enters pursued by the distraught Helena who wakes the sleeping Lysander. The potion works and Lysander chases after his new love Helena and Hermia awakes to find herself alone. Nearby, Tytania begins to sleep. Oberon appears and places the juice on her eyes. In this production Puck sprinkles her eyes as the curtain closes to act I.
Act II begins with the mechanicals commencing a rehearsal for the play for the royal nuptials. The play will be enacted in act III (a “play within a play” as in Pagliacci and Ariadne auf Naxos in the 20th century itself). Puck is in a mischievous mood. He decides to change Bottom’s head into that of a donkey causing the other mechanicals to flee in fear (much to Bottom’s confusion). Bottom’s aria sung beautifully by British bass-baritone Peter Rose awakens the nearby Tytania who instantly falls in love with him! In a stunning and funny sequence she seduces him to bed accompanied by on stage love making between the Queen and the Ass. Oberon elated that Tytania is out of his hair is still disappointed that Demetrius is now chasing Hermia. Oberon drips the juice on the sleeping Demetrius’ eyes.
Things get worse when Helena and Lysander come in awakening Demetrius who promptly falls in love with Helena. Hermia now enters and is swiftly rejected by her one time lover Lysander. Oberon is now angry with Puck and instructs him to sort the couples out applying the needed juice and antidote to them as they fall asleep.
It is now nearly dawn. Oberon rouses Tytania freeing her from the flower’s spell. The lovers awaken happily paired off. Bottom awakens with his normal head thinking he has been dreaming and a very strange dream at that! Bottom announces to the other mechanicals who have been searching for him that their play is to be performed at court. We leave the enchanted woods for Athens where the three couples watch the ludicrous and hilarious play Pyramus Thisbe (the latter a drag part for Peter Pears who doubled as Puck, a physically demanding speaking role in the premiere).
In a stellar cast from superb international names to sterling comprimarios including such Viennese stalwarts as bass Peter Kellner, tenor Thomas Ebenstein and Clemens Unterreiner (Theseus, Snout, Starveling respectively). Among the other mechanicals Peter Rose’s Bottom was, as before mentioned outstanding in his full range of bass-baritone. (Aria “when my cue comes, call me”). Helena’s impassioned aria (“injurious Hermia”) was a show-stopper and the best sung role among the women in this already star-studded cast of almost twenty. Also outstanding was the Tytania of American coloratura soprano Erin Morley (Britten regularizes her hysterical high notes in altissimo when eventually conquered by Oberon). As her consort Lawrence Zazzo the American countertenor though exceptional in presence was weak-hearted in tone (a role written originally for Alfred Deller). Canadian tenor Josh Lovell made a charming and dashing Lysander, Rachel Frenkel as his lover Hermia was opulently sung by the Israeli mezzo. Demetrius sung by Rafael Fingerlos had an interesting manner of singing and acting. And last but not least was the incredible Théo Touvet, a French born musician dancer acrobat and circus performer. His delivery of spoken test betrayed a French accent only rarely. Dressed in nothing but a leafy bikini and multiple tattoos depicting foliage his every muscle and sinew were in full display of his lean and fit body. With his mop of full dark hair he made a perfect impish hobgoblin somersaulting in the air, pirouetting, darting helter-skelter across the stage. And a final word of immense gratitude to the young and authoritative conductor Australian Simone Young. She led the Wiener Philharmoniker in a echt-Anglian performance of this wonderful fairy-tale masterpiece. Kudos to her for bringing off an ensemble piece to rival the standards of Glyndebourne.