Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960)
James Bowman (counter-tenor) – Oberon
Ileana Cotrubaş (soprano) – Tytania
Curt Appelgren (bass) – Bottom
Felicity Lott (soprano) – Helena
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
Peter Hall (stage director)
rec. 1981, Glyndebourne Festival, UK
Opus Arte OA1373 DVD 
After the unbounded pleasure following the reissue of Sir Peter Hall’s Glyndebourne production of Albert Herring last month (review), it is an additional delight to welcome the reissue of his other excursion into Britten territory during the 1980s, this time with the enchanting fantasy that is the composer’s miraculous realisation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The Dream is a much more complex and diffuse opera than the realistic comedy Albert Herring, and there are many opportunities for misjudgement (one or two of them the composer’s own) which have to be circumscribed; but Hall manages the occasional moments of uncertainty with a sure hand. Even the sudden change of atmosphere with the “tongs and bones” when Tytania is entertaining Bottom (a lapse into pseudo-Elizabethan pastiche, with a close imitation of the nursery tune Boys and girls come out to play delivered by recorders on stage) is not allowed to obtrude into the woodland enchantment or the lush string textures which follow immediately afterwards as Bottom is enfolded into the Queen’s arms. The transitions from the realm of Faerie into the quarrels of the mortal lovers, and the imitation bel canto opera delivered in the final scene by the rude mechanicals, are managed with a deftness of touch that never seems forced or abrupt.
In Britten’s own 1967 recording of the score, the Decca engineers furnished him with a halo of echo around the voices of the fairies, which served as a replacement for the other-worldly stage picture inevitably missing in an audio presentation. In the context of a live performance that is of course impossible to reproduce, but the ingenious solution of John Bury’s designs is to make the scenery itself enchanted. Actors concealed within the trees and bushes are allowed to slowly shift positions, not only to indicate changes of scene from part of the wood to another, but to reflect the moods and passions of the mortal and immortal beings whose actions are presented in the foreground. This was not entirely an original idea – Rutland Boughton in his Glastonbury Festival production of The Birth of Arthur in 1914 had introduced the idea of ‘singing choral scenery’ – but its use here is inspired, and rarely is the viewer ever aware of the presence of actors inside the vegetation. During the final Act the forest recedes into the background, firstly leaving a bare stage bathed in the morning sunrise which disperses the dream, and then a warmly furnished Elizabethan household for the nuptials of Theseus and Hippolyta. And when the fairies return at the end, they stamp their presence on their mundane surroundings with a scattering of dust captured by momentary freezing of the image on screen – another effect which would be impossible in the opera house, but which here carries just the slightest edge of necessary unreality.
In this background the emphasis is very much thrown onto the supernatural elvish sprites, and James Bowman and Ileana Cotrubaş are luxury casting indeed, to match the combination of Alfred Deller and Elizabeth Harwood in Britten’s Decca set. The slightly tinged foreign accent of Cotrubaş gives her assumption of the character a sense of other-wordliness to match the counter-tenor chill of the aristocratic Bowman and the rumbustious children who surround her. The cheeky Damien Nash as Puck, lithe and acrobatic, is a vast improvement on the serious but boyish Stephen Terry on Britten’s recording. Against this background the four quarrelsome lovers inevitably seem somewhat paler in character, but Felicity Lott and Cynthia Buchan bring a real viciousness to the resentment they have been harbouring against each other since their schooldays, and Ryland Davies and Dale Duesing do their ineffectual best to square up to each other in the rivalry into which they have been unwillingly manoeuvred. Among the upper and middle class mortals, the only relatively weak links here are Lieuwe Visser and Claire Powell as the newly-married Theseus and Hippolyta; but they have of course absolutely nothing to do until their sudden appearance in the final scene, and to expect Glyndebourne to match Decca’s luxury casting of John Shirley-Quirk and Helen Watts would be unreasonable – although one does miss the latter’s barbed and pithy criticisms of the rude mechanicals’ play (“I hope she will be brief”) which is rather less venomous here.
The rude mechanicals themselves are headed of course by Bottom, and Curt Appelgren (whose English is impeccable) is marvellous both in his pawky and balding Shakespearean costume and his fluffily adorable ass’s head – it is easy to imagine Tytania falling in love with such an attractively soppy creature. The remainder of the theatrical troupe are carefully and individually characterised both dramatically and musically, picking up hints in Shakespeare’s original text such as the inability of Wall (taken with dumb incomprehension by the sprechstimming Adrian Thompson) to hold the simplest of melodies, or the testy impatience of Peter Quince (an engaging Robert Bryson) and Patrick Power’s Flute which surmounts both his imitations of Lucia di Lammermoor in his/her mad scene and the cornet-soaked sentimentality of Thisbe’s lament. The trombone too has a riotous old time in Pyramus’s Approach, ye furies fell and the scene with the Andrew Gallagher’s shabby lion, and the vibraphone rings out sententiously to frame Donald Bell’s grumpy man in the moon.
Indeed the orchestral playing under Bernard Haitink is another of the real wonder’s of this performance. When reviewing Albert Herring I commented on the dry acoustic of the old Glyndebourne auditorium, and this of course remains in evidence here; but the actual delicacy of the sound and the analytical quality this lends to the larger orchestra of the Dream actually work to the advantage of the score. Incidentally the barbaric cut made in the last Act quartet in Britten’s 1967 recording is thankfully restored here. One problem in the old Britten recording was the occasional inaccuracy of the orchestral delivery from players unfamiliar with the score; here, with the LPO thoroughly accustomed to the music through a long season, there are no such concerns. The picture quality is not of ideally sharp definition to match the musical sound, but the eye soon adjusts and the effect remains streets ahead of many television broadcasts of similar vintage.
When this DVD last appeared, the presentation was shorn back to the bare minimum (just a synopsis and cast list printed on the inside of the cover, and no booklet); this latest reincarnation has restored a booklet complete with some still (but overly blurred) photographs of scenes from the production. The contents however are in English only, and subtitles are provided in English, German and Spanish – entirely European languages, with no provision for Korean or Japanese viewers as we have come today to expect. This is unfortunate if it results in reduced international sales for a video which, like the companion set of Albert Herring, sets standards which most modern productions would find it hard to emulate. Now that Naxos (Europe) have taken over the distribution rights, hopefully its continued availability in the catalogues will be assured.
Now, how about those other Peter Hall Glyndebourne productions from the 1960s onwards? I am thinking particularly of Cavalli’s La Calisto (with Janet Baker and James Bowman), long overdue for DVD release (there is an abysmal-quality pirate copy on YouTube); but there are many others from the same period which were given television transmission at the time but have been allowed to disappear from the current catalogues. Hopefully sales of these Britten reissues will serve to demonstrate the demand for this valuable material.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
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Ryland Davies (tenor) – Lysander
Cynthia Buchan (mezzo-soprano) – Hermia
Dale Duesing (baritone) – Demetrius
Patrick Power (tenor) – Flute
Lieuwe Visser (bass) – Theseus
Claire Powell (contralto) – Hippolyta
Damien Nash (speaker) – Puck
Roger Bryson (bass) – Quince
Adrian Thompson (tenor) – Snout
Andrew Gallacher (bass) – Snug
Donald Bell (baritone) – Starveling
Martin Warr (treble) – Cobweb
Stephen Jones (treble) – Peaseblossom
Jonathan Whiting (treble) – Mustardseed
Stuart King (treble) – Moth
John Bury (designer)
Sound formats: Dolby digital
Region code: all regions
Picture format: 4.3