Britten: A Midsummer Night's Dream

HomeConcerts HistoryAldeburgh Festival 2017Britten: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

‘There was no time to get a libretto written, so we took one that was ready to hand’. So wrote Britten as one of the reasons for choosing Shakespeare’s play as the subject for his new opera which was required under great time pressure for the re-modelled Jubilee Hall in 1960.

Ever the practical genius, this apparent necessity drew from him a work that has entranced audiences ever since and for which he clearly had a huge affection. Seven years later it was this enchanting masterpiece with which he chose to open the Snape Maltings Concert Hall and Opera House.

With a cast of internationally renowned singers and world-class creative partnership of director Netia Jones and conductor Ryan Wigglesworth, this captivating tale of lovers, rustics and fairies will be brought to life again in a magical new production.

Broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on Saturday 24 June.

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Photos by Hugo Glendinning

Tweets from cast and audience

Performers

Iestyn Davies Oberon
Sophie Bevan Tytania
Jack Lansbury Puck
Clive Bayley Theseus
Leah-Marian Jones Hippolyta
Nick Pritchard Lysander
George Humphreys Demetrius
Clare Presland Hermia
Eleanor Dennis Helena
Matthew Rose Bottom

Andrew Shore Quince
Lawrence Wiliford Flute
Sion Goronwy Snug
Nicholas Sharratt Snout
Simon Butteriss Starveling
Elliot Harding-Smith Cobweb
Ewan Cacace, Angus Hampson Peaseblossom
Adam Warne Mustardseed
Noah Lucas Moth

Willis Christie, Lorenzo Facchini, Angus Foster, Nicholas Harding-Smith, Kevin Kurian, Charles Maloney-Charlton, Robert Peters, Matthew Wadey chorus of fairies

Aldeburgh Festival Orchestra

Creative team

Netia Jones direction, design, projection
Ryan Wigglesworth conductor
Ian Scott lighting design

Jonathan Berman assistant conductor
Anna Tilbrook répétiteur
James Davy chorus master
Oliver Lamford assistant director
Jenny Ogilvie choreographer
Sam Paterson production manager
Joe Stathers-Tracey video technical manager
Katie Higgins & Madeleine Fry costume supervisors

Giuseppina Coviello wardrobe supervisor
Susanna Peretz wigs & make-up supervisor
Natalia Osipova & Rosalind Willson wigs & make-up technicians
Nicole Hatch wigs, make-up & wardrobe assistant
Beth Hoare-Barnes company stage manager
Jane Andrews deputy stage manager
Rachel Hancock & Zo Elsmore assistant stage managers
Justin Goad production electrician
Kate Johanssen, Moira Lam & William Saville lightmap assistants

Note from the director

‘What gives a concert hall its musical magic’ wrote Edward Green eld about Snape Maltings in the Guardian in 1967, ‘is one of those mysteries that no man … has yet fathomed’. The same is true of the magic of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a work so rich and teeming with life and ideas that it invites myriad interpretations and extrapolations. It is at once timeless and universal, wondrously strange and instantly recognisable. If the translation of a play into an opera might force interpretative decisions from the composer, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream the characterisation, dramatic pace and rhythms feel so spontaneous and natural they leave the imaginative space of the original wide open. Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream presents as many unfathomable mysteries, associations, evocations and ideas as Shakespeare’s, and like all of Shakespeare, it revels in ambiguity – it is in itself a piece of magic.

This production draws inspiration from Snape Maltings, both the buildings and the location, this beautiful and rangy collection of Victorian industrial structures erected by the energetic and ambitious Newson Garrett, grandson of the visionary owner of the local engineering works, Richard Garrett and Sons, surrounded by nature of the greatest beauty and diversity. The tradesmen and craftsmen who worked alongside Garrett are close relations to the Mechanicals, or manual workers, of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; skilled, hardworking men with specific trades and areas of expertise, not unlike Shakespeare’s own father and members of his extended family circle; glovemakers, artisans, tradesmen and entrepreneurs. Snape Maltings, surrounded by marshes, fields and woodland, was a hive of industry and labour for more than 100 years.

The 1960s, the decade which saw the closure of the working maltings and its conversion to the ‘Concert Hall and Opera House’ heralded by the Queen at the opening ceremony in 1967, witnessed a great Victorian revival and renewed interest in all things Victoriana, from design and architecture to fashion. A similar revival is happening now – photographs of the maltsters and working men of Garrett’s time sporting bowler hats, suits and a variety of facial hair are in every way identical to the styles of the current denizens of Shoreditch (sometime home to Shakespeare and other theatrical types associated with the Curtain and the Theatre of the 16th century) from where in my studio in another converted Victorian industrial building I am writing this note. The transformation of 19th-century working buildings into artistic and creative hubs, of which Snape was one of the very first, has created a stylistic and fashionable nostalgia that has permeated every area of design, fashion and architecture.

The mid-19th century by turn witnessed a nostalgia for all things Elizabethan, in particular an efflorescence of Shakespearean theatrical productions. William Poel offered up ‘authentic’ Shakespearean stagings, Henry Irving gave wildly popular and idiosyncratic performances of Shakespearean heroes and villains and later the ambitious productions of Herbert Beerbohm Tree sought to bring Shakespeare to as wide a public as possible. A Midsummer Night’s Dream was especially popular, and not only in the theatre – the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s commission of the iconic Edwin Landseer painting Scene From A Midsummer Night’s Dream epitomises the era. The Victorian fascination with A Midsummer Night’s Dream works straight to the heart of the piece, its strangeness and wonder, in the startling and intriguing presence of the supernatural.

While the history of fairies is as elusive and equivocal as the spirits themselves, there is a strong connection between the concept of fairies in the 16th and in the 19th centuries. In spite of emphatic tracts such as Reginald Scot’s ‘Discoverie of Witchcraft’ written in 1584, approximately a decade before Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which sought firmly to dispel any belief in the supernatural other than the divine, fairies were a source of fascination, fear and mystery to the people of the 16th century. Shakespeare is credited both with the miniaturisation of fairies, and the introduction of benevolence to the fairy kingdom, which was previously much more akin to the sprite from which Puck is derived – the Pouk, Pook, Green Man, Robin Goodfellow, Picklehäring or hairy goblin of folk tales and oral history. Shakespeare’s Puck is a part of this trajectory – an impish troublemaker and shapeshifter who torments housewives and causes chaos. But the fairies of Tytania’s retinue are altogether different – microscopic, picturesque and courtly, identified with buds, blossoms and dew drops. These two contrasting versions of the spirit kingdom resonate closely with a similar dichotomy in Victorian ideas of the supernatural, where on the one hand fairies were altogether twee and quaint, populating the bottom of the garden with diaphanous wings and bells as well as creating a whole new artform in Victorian fairy harp music, and on the other hand inhabiting terrifying ghost stories, communicating with mediums, or stealing human babies in exchange for fairy runts or changelings – a real fear and dread that lasted in some communities until the end of the century. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, while the interplay of evil and benign characterises the fairy kingdom, the king and queen of the fairies are revealed as peculiarly human, prone to equal jealousies, weaknesses, foibles and vanities as their mortal counterparts. They are more like spirits, a mirror to human behaviour. They are visible and invisible, magical and prosaic, ambiguous at every turn and open to interpretation. What is certain is that they are predominantly nocturnal and live mostly by moonlight, they are able to interact with humankind, can travel very fast and come out in the woods at night.

Woods and forests as places of magic and mystery, lawlessness and disorder, away from social rules and sexual restraints, both liberating and threatening, date back to the beginning of literature. There is darkness in the woods, and Tennyson’s ‘Nature, red in tooth and claw’ is as much in evidence in Shakespeare as the honeybags and mulberries.The pockets of ancient woodland near Snape, where some trees and shrubs date back to pre-Elizabethan times, are strange, unnerving and atmospheric. In these very rare corners of uncleared tree cover it is possible to find magical plants such as Herb Paris and Dog’s Mercury, Crane’s Bill, Hound’s Tongue, Travellers-Joy, Herb Bennet and Lady of The Woods. The decline of natural species, made sparse by industrialisation and development, and our own increasing separation from nature and plant life is lamented in Francis W. Simpson’s great compendium ‘Flora of Suffolk’, but the array and variety of names of local ora is still rich with poetry, history and allusion. Many of the local names for plants also appear in Edward Moor’s ‘Suffolk Words and Phrases’ where the author often calls up quotes from Shakespeare in his examples of usage of folk words and nick names;‘Lady’s Smock – Field flower, sometimes called Cuckoo-flower – ‘…daisies pied, and violets blue/ And Ladie smockes all silver white’ (Love’s Labours Lost). The wonderfully evocative folk names for flowers and herbs, which may reach back through the centuries to Shakespearean times, often suggest their restorative and medicinal qualities. It is evident in his works that Shakespeare, like Britten, was a keen naturalist, and plants, potions and poisons run through all of his plays. But these were of course also central to daily life at a time when medicine and healing were essentially botanic, and the connection to nature, even for town dwellers, was much closer. ‘O mickle is the powerful grace that lies / In herbs, plants, stones and their true qualities, / For naught so vile that on the earth doth live / But to the earth some special good doth give’ (Romeo and Juliet).

The beautiful Herballs of the 16th and 17th centuries with their practical medicinal applications, of which John Gerarde’s herball of 1597 may be the most lovely and most poetical, and in all likelihood well known by Shakespeare, reflect this central role of plants and botanical remedies in every day life. Nature in Shakespeare is both savage and wondrous, harmful and curative. The botanical remedy can be transformed into a diabolical potion or poison, and Oberon, like a dark apothecary, here calls upon the Pansy (or Love-In-Idleness, Hearts-Ease, Call-Me-To You, Viola Tricolore, or Three-Faces-In-A-Hood) for its pharmaceutical and mind-altering properties. The Elizabethan zeal for plant collecting, naming and categorising is mirrored in the 19th century where botanical collection and illustration reached new heights. For the first time nature was also photographed, the early daguerrotypes and calotypes of woodland, leaves, plants and flowers as spooky and atmospheric as any supernatural story, and a counterpoint to the ‘ghost photography’ and ‘fairy photographs’ also facilitated by this magical new medium. These murky, elusive black-and-white plant photographs create the feeling of night vision, or the monochrome sight of all nocturnal creatures.

In the 16th-century drama itself was a magical new medium, capable of achieving anything. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is simultaneously theatre and a contemplation of the wonders of theatre, a reflection on performance and on the transformative power of the imagination.These ideas are perfectly expressed in Benjamin Britten’s gem, a piece so intricate, fluent and multi-layered it can embrace ambiguity and turn in any direction, like a dream itself.

Netia Jones © 2017