Benjamin Britten - A Midsummer Night's Dream
Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2015
Kazushi Ono, Robert Carsen, Sandrine Piau, Lawrence Zazzo, Miltos Yerolemou, Scott Conner, Allyson McHardy, Rupert Charlesworth, John Chest, Elizabeth DeShong, Layla Claire, Brindley Sherratt, Henry Waddington, Michael Slattery, Christopher Gillett, Simon Butterriss, Brian Bannatyne-Scott
Culturebox - July 2015
It's not the greatest idea that Robert Carsen ever had, but his huge bed setting for the 1991 production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, revived here for the 2015 Aix-en-Provence Festival, is stylish and has remained popular over the years. Although it doesn't seem entirely obvious, its bold conceptual approach isn't entirely without justification either, matching as it does Britten's very distinct and carefully structured take on the original Shakespeare play, while introducing even a little bit of Shakespearean vulgarity that Britten may have glossed over somewhat in the respectful translation to opera.
There is certainly a change of emphasis in Britten's version of the play, which places the dispute between the Fairy King and Queen Oberon and Titania at the centre of the opera. There are also two other love affairs that become entangled in this dispute in Act I, but quite whether this justifies having a huge bed taking up the whole of the stage in Act I is debatable. Most of Britten's adaptation actually takes place in the enchanted woods just outside Athens - Lysander and Hermia seeming to wander in there by chance, not so much fleeing the harsh Athenian law - but the idea is successfully developed and adapted to events in the subsequent acts.
Michael Levine's sets seem to take nature into the equation however in the blue/green colouration, the midsummer night mood and the spell it casts connecting the earthly and the spiritual, the human and the fairy. It's an expansive view of the world that is a key element to the original Shakespeare play and it's replicated in Britten's playful and meticulous musical mirroring of each of the various elements where each has their own particular style, sound and instrumentation. Most notably, considering their central position in the work, are the ethereal delicate sounds of the fairy world, with voices that include a countertenor for Oberon (a rarity in 1960 when the work was written) and a boy chorus for the elves.
There is however perhaps too much emphasis on the 'dreamier' side of A Midsummer Night's Dream in Britten's opera to the detriment of the more earthy and comic elements, but Carsen's production manages to redress the balance slightly. Mozart was undoubtedly an important influence on Britten, but although there are musical nods to older styles of music, including Baroque opera references in the third Act Pyramus and Thisbe drama, there are no obvious direct references to Mozart in the score. It's hard however not to imagine that The Magic Flute was very much in the composer's mind when it comes to bringing together diverse characters and musical styles and creating order out of the chaos in a celebration of love and harmonious accord.
It's interesting that Carsen's later take on Die Zauberflöte in a graveyard would indeed emphasise the harmony of all things more than the traditional divisions in Mozart's work, and to some extent that balance and Mozartian influence is evident in Carsen's much earlier production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. In her blue attire, Titania is a Queen of the Night figure, while the green Oberon is a more earthly Sarastro figure (albeit at the other extreme end of the male voice). Their personal dispute, like the dispute between the opposing forces of Die Zauberflöte, is what causes discord in love among the various couples, and it's only by acceptance of the opposing sides of human rationality and spirituality in Carsen's interpretation of the Magic Flute (rather than one side defeating the other) that reconciliation to the wholeness of human brotherhood is possible.
This would coincide very well with Shakespeare's view in A Midsummer Night's Dream, which sees that inclusive union primarily brought together through Lysander and Hermia, the Tamino and Pamina of the work. You could also see parallels between the three boys of Die Zauberflote and the boy elf chorus of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Bottom could be seen as a kind of Monostatos, and his getting into bed with the Queen of the Night is a catalyst, a monstrous alliance that does finally bring the opposing forces into a confrontation that requires a resolution. It's by no means a perfect fit, but there is much to be gained from comparing how Mozart deals with such questions and how Britten uses similar techniques to bring out similar sentiments in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
What Britten's opera lacks that Shakespeare's play relies on heavily (and Mozart's Die Zauberflöte), is the comedy to emphasise the earthy human spirit. Puck - the Papageno figure of the opera - is there to be used as a necessary force of chaos. Carsen and some good comic acting from Miltos Yerolemou, occasionally breaking the fourth wall, help bring that out a little more. Bottom is another vital part of this side of the work and it's scored beautifully for the lyrical bass-baritone voice by Britten. Played here by Brindley Sherratt, and sung wonderfully too, it still needs some good direction to bring out the comedic side of his bluster, and that's all there in the Aix production. A great donkey mask helps too and you couldn't ask for more than the well-designed one here that doesn't get in the way of the performer singing.
While comedy is an important part of A Midsummer Night's Dream, what is really important is that all of its diverse tones and moods come together to create a kind of wholeness that has a magic enchantment of its own. As numerous references in the play allude to, and they are there in Britten's version too, the whole play itself can be seen as something of a dream. Carsen's production in the courtyard of the Théâtre de l’Archevêché in Aix-en-Provence has all the scale and the style to make it work. The green/blue/white colour scheme, how it ties in with the music and instrumentation, the beds from one to six to the levitating three in the final act, all serve to create build up a sense of an enchanted world where love reigns as the mysterious force that binds us all together.
Links: Culturebox, Festival d'Aix-en-Provence