Thickets of Enchantment and Illusion
A Midsummer Night's Dream an opera by Benjamin Britten Lowell House Dining Hall tonight at 8:30
YOU CAN VIEW dreams as either tree farms or jungles. They can be logical, symmetrical and tame, set out in rows of trees that can always be distinguished from the untamed woods. Such neat dreams are a comfort to the tidy who enjoy right-angles and other intellectual exercises in geometry. But dreams are more often, and more interestingly, knottings of old and new--blends of what is real, what is probable, and what is only possible. Dreams are more an impression of reality than a photographic re-creation of it. They are made up of substance and shade, as are pictures in even a botanical textbook, but they are moved by spirits and fireflies and mysterious voices. You feel a breeze, you see a flashing light, you hear a noise, but then it is gone and you have no way of knowing where it came from or has gone to.
The summer solstice is traditionally thought to be the night when dream spirits are most active. A wood serves as a metaphor for a dream and it is also the best place to set one. A Midsummer Night's Dream is at once a producer of magical events and a product of the wood outside Athens where it occurs. Shakespeare wrote about mortals and spirits tangled in a complicated web of deception and enchantment. In Benjamin Britten's operatic version of the play the twinings of reality and illusion combine to confuse all the wanderers in the wood. The fairies bewitch the mortals and each other, the mortals get lost and easily fall prey to the fairies' spells. But all, human and immortal alike, are animated by the glades and avenues within the forest and they all grow together.
The Dream is as multi-layered as any forest. Lyrically, it is basically the play as Shakespeare wrote it, cut by half to exclude most of the scenes outside the forest. Britten composed it in 1960. From the beginning of the overture to Puck's last speech the opera combines different musical modes to represent the different levels and intensities of action. The most striking distinctions are between the music moving the spirits and that moving the mere mortals. All different kinds of musical textures and harmonies distinguish the two groups. The fairies are musically represented by instruments like the harp, harpsichord, and celesta; and percussion that frequently goes off at melodic and rhythmic tangents as unexpected as are Puck's entrances and exits. The humans' movements are heralded by woodwind and strings that stay comparatively close to the everyday world. Occasional discords throw into relief the eeriness of the fairy themes. Philip Kelsey conducts a 37-piece orchestra that it would be worth the three-dollar admission just to hear. And the singers prove equally professional, balancing technique with feeling.
THE OVERTURE is reminiscent of the slow trembling of leaves just before dusk. The everyday and the real give way to mystery and the dark. Then the fairy chorus is on stage, high voices piping "over hill, over dale..." and the stage, mostly bare of scenery, comes alive. What strikes the viewer, in addition to these spirits' freedom from Tinkerbell-ishness, is the 'fairies' self-consciousness and rather awkward stance, in sharp contrast with their lyrical singing. Harvard is hardly teeming with good dancers, but their absence in the opera rather detracts from the unearthly effect created by the music--these immortals are so obviously of-this-world. They wear a few wisps of gauze, to be sure, but leotards in purples and greens and blues do not flatter any but the most petite of figures.
Elizabeth Meade, as Puck, leaps into their midst drawing all eyes back to the stage that was previously almost as embarrassing to watch as the dancing spirits had appeared to feel. Puck is angular and supple. He/she whirls and dazzles and confuses the more staid spirits, spinning around the stage, and reciting her lines with gleee and, at the same time, a cruelty that sends Cobweb, Peaseblossom, Mustard Seed, Moth and the other fairies fleeing in dismay. Puck's mercurial appearances have this alarming effect on the players and audience alike.
ThisMidsummer Night's Dream continues with episode after episode of the amusement of the quicksilver characters at the expense of the slower ones. There is, for example, the scene where Tytania (Judith Kellock) quite forgets her previously regal hauteur and sings passionate love to the donkey-headed weaver Bottom. She and her husband, Oberon, have fallen out because Tytania refuses to surrender her favorite page-boy to him. The vengeful Oberon schemes as Tytania sleeps unaware on a flowery river bank. He sends Puck in search of an aphrodisiac flower which will make the Queen fall in love with the first creature she sees on waking. The result is just what the fairy king Oberon had hoped for. Tytania espies Bottom (J. Scott Brummitt), whom Puck has given an ass's head. She immediately decides that they could have a meaningful relationship. She lures him to her bower and dismisses her attendant fairies, but the unromantic ass-headed lover yawns and falls asleep.
Oberon, played by Hohn Heseltine, has an amazing voice. There is a strange paradox to Britten's characterization of the role--the King of the Fairies has to have a high voice that contrasts with the voices of the humans. Heseltine manages to avoid the pitfall of sounding like a choir-boy. He sounds unearthly and commanding at the same time.
The plot is complicated and overgrown, including both sighing lovers and slapstick comedy, the latter provided by rustic laborers rehearsing an opera within this opera. The main weak point is the tendency for overlong recitative passages that stretch audience interest thin at times. The singing dialogues, however, especially the rustics', are splendid. In the end, after all the trials and tribulations of True Romance, there is a grand reconciliation when the status quo is restored. Good-humor and realism prevail over magic. At this point, the rustic laborers' comic rendition of the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe is not only a parody of human lovers' seriousness, but also of 19th century opera.
The show is a rare House production that, except for the awkwardness of the fairy chorus, has few of the faults of most amateur productions. But then, the Lowell House Opera is not a typical Harvard House production. The majority of the cast have been brought in from outside. Yet the end result is a highly convincing pageant of the surreal. There are few better forms of legal escapism around.