Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream is an opera adapted by by the composer and Peter Pears from William Shakespeare's play. It was premiered on 11 June 1960 at the Aldeburgh Festival, conducted by the composer.
Stylistically, the work is typical of Britten, with a highly individual sound-world - not strikingly dissonant, but replete with subtly atmospheric harmomies and tone painting. Atypically for Britten, the opera did not include a leading role for his partner Pears - it is the only one of his stage works that did not, other than the early operetta Paul Bunyan. Instead, Pears had the comic drag role of Flute/Thisbe.
Britten skillfully delineated the three tiers of characters, the rustics being given folk-like "simple" music, the lovers a more romantic sound-world and the fairies being represented in a very ethereal way. Almost all of the action now takes place in the woods around Athens, and the fairies inhabit a much more prominent place in the drama. The comic performance by the rustics of Pyramus and Thisbe at the final wedding takes on an added dimension as a parody of nineteenth century Italian opera.
The opera contains several innovations: this was quite possibly the first time in the entire history of opera that the male lead role was written specifically for countertenor. The part of Oberon was created by Alfred Deller. Britten wrote specifically for his voice, which, although ravishingly lyrical, was weak in the high notes; the result being that Oberon's music almost never requires the countertenor to sing both at the top of the alto range, and forte.
The plot of the opera follows that of the play, with several alterations. The whole of Shakespeare's Act 1 is cut, compensated for by the opera's only added line: "Compelling thee to marry with Demetrius." Therefore much greater precedence is given to the wood, and to the fairies. This is also indicated by the opening portamenti strings, and by the ethereal countertenor voice that is Oberon, the male lead, who throughout is accompanied by a characteristic texture of harp and celeste, in the same way that Puck's appearance is heralded by the combination of trumpet and snare-drum.
The opera opens with a wonderful chorus, "Over hill, over dale" from Tytania's attendant fairies, played by boy sopranos. Other highlights include Oberon's beautifully florid aria,"I know a bank" (inspired by Purcell's "Sweeter than roses", which Britten had previously arranged for Pears to sing), Tytania's equally florid "Come now, a roundel", the chorus's energetic "You spotted snakes", the hilarious comedy of "Pyramus and Thisbe", and the final trio for Oberon, Tytania and the chorus.
The original play is an anomaly among Shakespeare's works, in that is very little concerned with character, and very largely concerned with psychology. Britten follows this to a large extent, but subtly alters the psychological focus of the work. The introduction of a chorus of boy-fairies means that the opera becomes greatly concerned with the theme of purity. It is these juvenile fairies who eventually quell the libidinous activities of the quartet of lovers, as they sing a beautiful melody on the three "motto chords" of the second act:"Jack shall have Jill/Naught shall go ill/The man shall have his mare again/And all shall be well." Sung by boys, this goes beyond irony, and represents an idealized vision of a paradise of innocence and purity that Britten seems to have been captivated by throughout his life.
Britten could not, of course, have written the opera without paying attention to the play's central motif: the madness of love. Curiously, however, he took the one relationship in the play that it is utterly grotesque (that of Tytania and Bottom)and placed it literally in the centre of his opera (in the middle of Act 2). In an opera full of luscious music, perhaps the most luscious is devoted to the affair between the fairy queen and the weaver. Women in Britten operas tend to run to extremes, being either predators or vulnerable prey, but Tytania is an amalgam; she dominates Bottom, but is herself completely dominated by Oberon and Puck, the couple that really hold power in The Dream. Their cruel pranks eventually quell her coloratura, which until she is freed from the power of the love - juice is fiendishly difficult to sing.
Britten also parodied operatic convention in less obvious ways than "Pyramus and Thisbe". Like many other operas, "A Midsummer Night's Dream" opens with a chorus, but it is a chorus of unbroken boys' voices, singing in unison. After this comes the entrance of the prima donna and the male lead, who is as far away as possible from Wagner's heldentenors, and as close as it is possible to get to Handel's castrati of the 18th century. Britten's treatment of Puck also suggests parody. In opera, the hero's assistant is traditionally sung by baritones, yet here we have an adolescent youth who speaks, rather than sings.
The opera originally received an extremely mixed critical assessment. Britten's estranged collaborator W.H. Auden dismissed it as "dreadful - pure Kensington," while many others praised it highly. Now it is widely accepted as one of Britten's masterworks, though criticism is sometimes levelled at "Pyramus and Thisbe" for being overlong and a little arch; however, the outstanding quality of the "fairy music" usually convinces even the harshest critics. It is fairly regularly performed, though one difficulty in performing the opera is the large forces required.
Discography and Videography
There are many different recordings available, including one conducted by the composer with some of the original cast, including Deller as Oberon, Owen Brannigan as Bottom, and Peter Pears elevated from Flute to Lysander. Unfortunately this recording omits some very beautiful music from the lovers' awakening early in Act 3.