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Complementing the Genius of A Midsummer's Night Dream

While critics over the centuries have noted that Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream--written around 1594-1596--was an early work (meaning not as fully developed as, say, his late comedy The Tempest--written 1610-1611), it was nonetheless filled with the genius of its author. Likewise another genius, Benjamin Britten had his fun with this play and turned it into a full-scale opera, which premiered in 1960 at the Aldeburgh Festival. On August 15, 2010, at the Barns of Wolf Trap in Vienna, Virginia, the Dresser caught Britten's opera under the stage direction of Patrick Diamond and baton of Steven Osgood.


Theseus-HippolytaSM.jpgShakespeare's comedy is a complicated story that weaves together the pending wedding of immortals Duke Theseus of Athens and the Amazonian Queen, Hippolyta with the parent-defying teenage hormones-gone-wild love chase of mortals Hermia, Lysander, Helena, and Demetrius. Further complicating the story is a fight between Oberon, king of the fairies, and his queen Titania who refuses to allow an Indian changeling to be given over to her husband as his henchman. The madcap extra is a group of tradesmen who prepare a play for the wedding entertainment of Theseus and Hippolyta, but accidentally get mixed up with the mischief Oberon has his man Puck exact on Titania.oberon-pucksm.jpg

Britten's opera, which he adapted from Shakespeare with the help of his life partner tenor Peter Pears, cuts out most of Shakespeare's first act. The opera jumps immediately into the fight between Oberon and Titania. The consequence is that an unschooled viewer (meaning someone unfamiliar with the Shakespearean source) has lost the anchoring details of the Theseus and Hippolyta's wedding celebration from which the entire set of complications derives. Therefore when the audience gets to the end of Patrick Diamond's production, one has to either access one's internal file of Shakespeare's summaries to figure out how fine base-baritone Michael Sumuel playing Theseus and able mezzo-soprano Eve Gigliotti playing Hippolyta got on stage so late in the opera or merely throw up one's hands and mutter, "Who are they?"


If one chooses to spend all the time and money it takes to put an opera on stage, it's incumbent, particularly on the director, to bring his or her own genius to the production and not only creatively fill in the gaps for the audience but enhance the work of the original creative team--the composer and librettist. Certainly Britten's overture with its sweeping strum from the harps and odd sliding sound from the violins gives the musical space to do this. How so? Maybe something as simple as a quick dumb show that allows Theseus and Hippolyta to be seen at the beginning of the opera.

There are many aspects of the production that reach toward the collaborative genius of which the Dresser speaks. The inspired but minimal set by Erhard Rom with lighting by Robert H. Grimes includes a steeply raked stage (better for the untiered seating on the first floor of the Barns of Wolf Trap) a light in the shape of smiling crescent moon, twinkling high-intensity stars, a circular staircase where Oberon makes his dramatic entrances and exits, and gauzy curtains that open and close on a circular ceiling rod, a circular space defining Titania's bedroom.

Photo by Carol Pratt

TitaniaSM.jpgCamille Assaf costume design and Elsen Associates hair and makeup design for the collective set of fairies are both whimsical and artful. All the fairies except Oberon have red hair. Everyone in the magical community is dressed in green. Outfitted in pajamas, the children fairies--in real life they are part of the Arlington Children's Chorus--have untamed topknots that make them look like they get their hair combed once a month, if that. The named fairies--Cobweb, Peaseblossom, Mustardseed, and Moth are dressed as estate maids (short green dresses with frilly white aprons) and use feather dusters. While Oberon wears pajamas, he also wears a silky robe that closes only with a sash. Titania wears a sparking gown that makes her look like a mermaid. Could it be that the costume designer padded--here the Dresser drops in the softer British word--her bum?MortalsFightSM.jpg Other characters, mortal and immortal, wear contemporary clothing including Bottom, who, as leader of the entertainment for the royal bridle pair, sports a Batman outfit.

The music makers of this production not only filled up the pit but also a below stage anteroom (there, horn players sat outside the open door leading to the pit) and either side of the stage at the audience level. Two harps and two basses occupied the floor, stage right, and a harpsichord and celeste sat, stage left. Steven Osgood an exceedingly fine conductor whom the Dresser saw last March at New York City Opera's VOX showcase of new opera, seemed happily in control of a fine concert. What seemed less certain was the chorus of fairies who in Act I seemed unenergetic and the voice of Ryan Belongie, the countertenor singing the role of Oberon, was at one point muted by the orchestra. However, by Act II the pace picked up and the principal singers had achieved their comfort zones.

For the Dresser, standout performers were Alexander Strain as Puck (this is a spoken role but Strain seemed especially attuned to the music and practically burst into song at one point), bass Nicholas Masters as Bottom, and soprano Rena Harms as Helena. As a group, the tradesmen represented by Kenneth Kellog (as Quince), Michael Anthony McGee (as Snug), Daniel Billings (as Starveling), David Portillo (as Flute), Nathaniel Peake (as Snout), and Nicholas Masters (as Bottom) gave an excellent performance.PlayersSM.jpg

Myra Sklarew's poem "Words" from her new book Harmless touches on many of the natural elements that are part of A Midsummer's Night Dream. What the poem does effectively is remind the reader how important it is when it comes to the emotion of love that one understands fully what is being said. Oberon through his man Puck with his love-in-idleness flower powder, scrambles the expression of love on the unforewarned Titania and the hapless teenage men Lysander and Demetrius so that they are speaking the words of love without knowing what they are saying to whom.


I do not love the man,
only his words.

I love the oak
but I love the word
oak more than the tree.

I love the morning, how
first light peels
away the dark inscriptions
of dreams.

I love the sun going down
at day's end, the way the earth
rises to meet it, but I love
Neruda's word for twilight more--

I love nakedness
but imagine winding-sheet,
veil, crypt.

I love the earth but
I say loam. I say Adamah
for the earth that is human.

Some prefer the image
to flesh, or the sound
of a bullet in air
before its arrival,

the body's arousal
more than its release.

I love the man's words
but fear the one who thinks
he knows me by the words
I send to him.

by Myra Sklarew

Copyright © 2010 Myra Sklarew
From Harmless

All photos except where indicated are by Kim Pensinger Witman


Comments (2)

Shakespeare in opera. It cannot get much better than this: Alenier proves it to us.

Mary Morris:

Thank you & I love that poem by Myra Skarlew.

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