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A Midsummer Night's Dream

It's Mendelssohn, Not Meddlesome

Shakespeare Opera Theatre, Church of Our Redeemer, Aldie, Virginia
Sunday, August 27, 2017, end seats, second of four, six-chair rows
Directed and choreographed by Lori Lind, conducted by Lisa Bloy

Dah-dah-dah-daaahhh.

It is one of the most popular pieces of music in history.

Dah-dah-dah-daaahhh.

Not played as often as "Happy Birthday to You" and the "Star-Spangled Banner," perhaps, but certainly more ubiquitous than Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, "Hey Jude," and the theme to Gilligan's Island.

Dah-dah-dah-baaahhmph, Dah-dah-dah-baaahhmph, Dah-dah-dah-baaahhmph, Dah-dah-dah-baaahhmph, Dah-dah-dah-BWAAHH! BWAAHH! BWAAH-BAHMPH-BAHMPH-BAHMPH-BRRRLLLMPH-BAHMPH, DAH-DAH-BAHMPH, DAH-DAH-BAHHHH!

It is Felix Mendelssohn's Wedding March, and he wrote it in 1842 to accompany William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. This triumphal piece of orchestral music became what is now the ubiquitous soundtrack for blushing brides and grinning grooms tripping down the aisles through a phalanx of cheers and tears at the end of weddings (often paired with Richard Wagner's Bridal Chorus, i.e., "Here Comes the Bride" that starts many matrimonies). How much fun, then, to see it used for its original purpose, as Theseus, the Duke of Athens, and his bride, Hippolyta, along with two other newlywed couples, all dressed in formal Greek and Amazonian regalia, march onto the stage—attended by fairies.

Such moments are the richest gifts (along with a few more ordinary presents) of Shakespeare Opera Theatre’s production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night’s Dream featuring the full suite of Mendelssohn’s incidental music. The nascent theater company, based in Northern Virginia, is devoted to pairing Shakespeare with classical music that his works influenced. The company launched in 2015 with a repertory of Much Ado about Nothing and Hector Berlioz’s Béatrice and Bénédict. Last year we saw The Merry Wives of Windsor along with Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff (reviewed on Shakespeareances.com). This year, Shakespeare Opera Theatre Managing Director Lori Lind decided on a single production combining two famous compositions that are intrinsically connected but seldom presented in one full-scale production. I've seen an orchestra present Mendelssohn’s suite of incidental music in a concert featuring actors playing passages from the play (as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra did in 2014, reviewed on Shakespeareances.com). However, I’ve never seen a company use an orchestra to incorporate Mendelssohn's score into a full-scale production of Shakespeare’s play, and the opportunity to experience that prompted our driving through back-country roads to Aldie, Virginia, to catch a preview performance of Shakespeare Opera Theatre’s production in the Church of Our Redeemer's fellowship hall. In the coming weekends the production will play at the Ernst Cultural Center in Annandale and the Jackson Memorial Amphitheater in Manassas.

Mendelssohn was 17 years old when he wrote his Ein Sommernachststraum Overture, Op. 21, in 1826 with no commission for it except his inspiration fired by reading the play. It makes many of classical music's essentials lists, including mine, not because of its Shakespeare connection but because it is a supremely gorgeous score. Mendelssohn exquisitely creates a vivid musical vision of Shakespeare’s fairies wandering wither, of proud mythological heroes, of romantic lovers, and of “rude mechanicals” with a braying ass. In 1643, the King of Prussia commissioned Mendelssohn to write music for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the composer wrote what is now called A Midsummer Night’s Dream Incidental Music, Op. 61, which incorporates his earlier Overture. This suite does not display the genius of the 17-year-old Mendlessohn’s work, but it nevertheless musically captures the play's imagery and tone, not to mention giving the world the Wedding March.

Lind, in directing and choreographing this production, approaches it with an opera director's aesthete, albeit on a community theater budget. There are fairies galore of all ages (including one as young as 4 years old), all sumptuously costumed by Sadie Albert, especially the Indian changeling boy, while Oberon is dressed in a Persian robe and wearing a berries and brambles crown. The set by Scenic Artist and Designer Catherine Heller features plywood trees in silhouette (including branches that form the outline of an ass’s head) and decorated in flowers and real moss, a long platform angling across one side of the stage and a large crescent moon at the back. To the side is a 10-piece orchestra of strings, winds, and brass under the direction of Lisa Bloy.

Although Lind incorporates the music into the play's text (with much trimming of lines to fit within three hours, including a 15-minute intermission), this version of A Midsummer Night's Dream is really built from Mendelssohn's score, starting with the Overture. Such pieces of music are intended to serve as a digest of the leit motifs and melodies used throughout the coming opera, ballet, musical, or Moody Blues concert, but Lind turns Mendelssohn's Overture into a prologue for the play, establishing backstories of her own imagination.

Puck (Cassandra Newman), in rustic clothes with various furry animal tails hanging from her belt and constantly sniffing at the air, enters tentatively to the Overture's delicate opening strains. The rest of the fairies emerge to dance to four dozen measures of tripping violins. Upon the full orchestra's majestical fortissimo, the fairies give way to Theseus (Gregory Stuart) and Hippolyta (Elizabeth Keith) entering in full-on sword-and-shield combat. He is in classical Greek skirt with gold laurel wreath and a shield bearing the image of a bull (a classical mythology reference), she is wearing an Amazon's gown, winged crown, and a shield bearing the image of Medusa (a DC Comics reference). Puck follows, watching, as the two warriors clang swords and shields all about the stage. As the music settles into romantic mode, Helena (Kerry Auer) and Demetrius (Maggie Ramsey) enter. They are a couple in the first stages of love, but Puck pranks them, causing Demetrius to split with Helena. The BOM, BOM, BOM of the score announces the arrival of the rude mechanicals, represented by Bottom (Michael Harris) and Quince (Theodore Sapp). Puck punks them, too, and they depart in a huff. Continuing with the interweaving musical themes of the Overture, Theseus and Hippolyta return clanging away; Puck tries to steal the Indian changeling boy from First Fairy (Jen Furlong); Helena and Demetrius meet with Hermia (Erika Straus) and Lysander (Taylor Witt), whereupon Demetrius turns off from Helena and on to Hermia; Bottom and the Mechanicals clown about (Harris already announcing we're in for a special Bottom); and Theseus and Hippolyta clang back onto the stage. Theseus finally overcomes the Amazonian queen and is about to strike the fatal blow when Puck whispers in his ear. Then Puck whispers in Hippolyta's ears, and love ensues, leading to a marriage proposal. And so, as the music moves into the ritardando of the Overture's concluding measures, the royal couple stares at the moon. Music ends, and Theseus says "Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour draws on apace; four happy days bring in another moon: but, O, methinks, how slow this old moon wanes!"

Nice.

Though, problematic. Puck's textual role in creating confusion by infecting the wrong lover's eyes with Oberon's love potion doesn't jibe with Lind having him cause Demetrius and Helena's break in the first place—unless you buy into Oberon's suspicion that Puck commits his knaveries willfully (but in this production's reading, that would mean Puck is punking us, too, contrary to Shakespeare's relationship with his audience). Furthermore, Shakespeare intentionally muddies the backstory of Demetrius and Helena, part of this play's study of the vagaries of love—you don't need a love potion to suddenly and inexplicably switch dotage to another person.

Ramsey plays Demetrius as a sexual octopus, in constant molest mode with Hermia whenever they are on stage together. Straus's Hermia doesn't like the pawing, but she does love the attention. "Call you me fair?" Helena complains to her. "That fair again unsay. Demetrius loves your fair: O happy fair!" and, indeed, Hermia gloats in the compliment. Kraus portrays Hermia as resolutely romantic, but also a post in concrete, and this self-centered stubbornness keeps her from initially accepting that Lysander has switched his affection to Helena. When she does realize the truth, of course it's all Helena's fault.

Another fun Shakespearean interpretation is turned in by Vitaly Mayes playing Francis Flute as a testosterone-infused bellows mender. Approaching as a macho macho man when Quince calls his name in the players' roles, he's stunned to learn he's playing Thisbe, the young girl. For the rest of the play, he tries presenting Thisbe as everything from a dainty slut (punching himself in the gut to speak in a soprano voice) to a power-lifting butch. When Bottom later tells his fellows that their play "is preferred," Mayes's Flute looks defeated.

One of the production's most enthralling performances—having less to do with the play than the company's opera DNA— is turned in by Stuart, first as Theseus and then most especially as Oberon (Keith also doubles Hippolyta with Titania). Stuart played Ford in last year's Merry Wives of Windsor and sang Bardolph in Falstaff, and he was one of the highlights of that opera. In this production he turns Shakespeare's verse into a play-long spoken aria. You may never hear a more musical rendering of Oberon's "I know a bank where the wild thyme blows" speech; the chills start just anticipating it. Stuart plays Oberon throughout with sinister smugness, but even the way he tells the drugged, sleeping Titania to "wake when some vile thing is near" is operatic.

Then there's Bottom. Harris returns to the company after his sensational Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor to take on another of Shakespeare's great comic roles, and as he did with the Fat Knight in last year's production he brings great character depth beyond a clownish portrayal. This Bottom is a ham, one who apparently is a mainstay in community theater as he coaches Snug (Don Myers) how to claw like a lion. He is always on a stage: even when he's alone, he's performing (because, in his mind, somebody is probably watching him). It's an ironic interpretation in that, after being transformed with the ass head, he strides back and forth singing so that his fellows "shall hear I am not afraid," and someone in fact is watching: Titania, awakened by his singing and, because of Oberon's potion, falling in love with the first thing she sees. When done right, this is one of the funniest scenes in all of theater history, and so it is here with Keith's Titania gazing, mesmerized, at Harris’s Bottom performing to himself.

In Titania’s bower, Bottom relaxes into a more natural version of himself. “I’ll give thee fairies to attend on thee,” Titania tells him, and Bottom looks to the audience and says, “oooohh!” Meanwhile, Titania laughs at all his stupid jokes; she can’t help herself. After their night together, Harris turns in a tour de force performance of Bottom awaking and pondering his dream. He automatically shifts into on-stage form, but his vivid experience with the fairy queen creeps up and molds him into a more introspective honesty. The reality in this play is that Bottom not only is the only mortal who has seen the fairies, he has made love with their queen. Even if he thinks it's a dream, you can't take that away from him, and his bravado now becomes real confidence. He's still a ham: in the presentation of Pyramus and Thisbe he emotes with Gielgudian grandeur. But Hippolyta, at least, is impressed with his performance, and Demetrius raptly watches Bottom's overlong, excessive enactment of Pyramus's death.

Though the acting across the company is uneven, and some staging choices make little sense (Hermia is drunk when seeking Lysander in the woods with Demetrius following her), this production has some fun touches. Oberon and Puck turn themselves into trees when Lysander chases Hermia on stage, and Lysander leans on Oberon's limb. When Helena later in the scene complains that the others are scorning her, Straus's Hermia rolls her eyes: she's heard this shtick before. Similarly, when Puck relates his prank-filled history to First Fairy, Furlong plays that fairy mimicking Puck's spiel: she's heard that shtick before.

Still, along with Harris's Bottom, what delights most in this production is the music—the tiny orchestra providing a first-class representation of Mendelssohn's score—and how it influences interpretation of the play. A Midsummer Night's Dream suffers a case of Shakespeare time. Theseus gives Hermia three days to make her decision about whether to marry Demetrius (instead of her preferred, Lysander) or live the life of a nun, but the action of the play seems to occur over one night. Lind uses Mendelssohn's score, with his Nocturne and its reprise, to represent the lovers and Titania sleeping through two nights (besides, Puck twice warns Oberon of coming dawn). Though Oberon and Titania are traditionally doubled with Theseus and Hippolyta, as in this production, in Act IV, Scene 1, the former leave before the latter immediately walk on stage: the musical interlude allows them to transition. Mendelssohn's Dance of Clowns becomes the rude mechanicals' Bergomask, which is presented here as a visual representation of Bottom's Dream: Bottom had planned to have Quince write a ballad about his dream to sing "in the latter end of a play, before the Duke," and what Bottom wants, he always gets. For the Wedding March, each lord and lady paces in individually, Theseus, Hippolyta, Lysander, and Demetrius each accompanied by a fairy; Hermia and Helena walk in alone, Helena arriving late, but after using measured steps halfway to the stage, she rushes into Demetrius's arms. Then the men tie their hands to their ladies' hands with white ribbon. In such moments does Mendelssohn's incidental music weave so deftly into the play. Only when the orchestra starts playing at Thisbe's entrance to find the dead Pyramus does the orchestra intrude on the action.

For me, the most significant measure of Shakespeare Opera Theatre's contribution to the presentation of Shakespeare is in the choral piece, "You Spotted Snakes," that Mendelssohn wrote for the fairies to sing (per Shakespeare's text) as Titania prepares to bed down in Act II, Scene 2. I've always regarded this piece as the musical equivalent of nails scratching a chalkboard, to the point that I even cringe when I read Shakespeare's lines to the song. However, as sung by this company—with the children fairies enacting snakes, hedgehogs, spiders, and beetles that should "come not here"—it is thrillingly lovely. The arrangement is Mendelssohn's original, but the blend of fairies' voices here is singular to the Shakespeare Opera Theatre.

The production concludes with another dance and song from the fairies, "Tro' This House," ending with all the fairies crowded around Puck at the front of the stage. Newman delivers the epilogue, and the last chords of Mendelssohn's score plays. A goodnight to us all.

Eric Minton
September 1, 2017

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