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Seen and Heard Concert Review

Felix Mendelssohn/William Shakespeare: A Midsummer's Nights Dream: Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Ivan Fischer (conductor), Actors from the Globe Theatre, Tim Carroll (director), Royal Festival Hall, London, 28th February, 2005 (AO)

Musicians of the level of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment are used to playing music as music, even though the material in question, such as Mendelssohn's, was inspired by literature. Actors are not instinctively attuned to music: as someone quipped, their idea of a bar is “different”. This performance was something of an event, bringing together actors and musicians in truly joint production. It was highly creative, a whole new level of experience.

The concert platform was set out as usual, and the orchestra launched into the Overture “as normal”, but somehow conveyed a sense of anticipation. Perhaps it was the use of period instruments, creating a lyrical sense of unworldliness, different from the lush elaboration with which this music is often associated. The actors started off conventionally, too, reading their lines off books in formal evening dress, but soon the magic was to begin. As the music cast its spell, all was transformed, dashing the boundaries between reality and dream. Seldom has the element of “play within a play” been so effectively evoked by such simple means. Just as the “Athenians” transformed into “workmen”, musicians served as musicians as well as part of the scenery, interacting with the actors. The orchestra was both clearly visible, and yet rendered invisible by what was happening around them. Actors “hid” behind the conductor to “disappear” from the sight of their fellows. Their movements were often in time to the music, as if in a highly subtle, stylised dance. Oberon, as master of ceremonies, stands in front of the conductor, imitating his exact movements. They popped out of the cover of the orchestra, as if popping out from the dense undergrowth of the mysterious forest, itself a metaphor for dreams and the metaphysical.


For the March of the Fairies, the auditorium grew dark. A masterstroke, now! The fairies entered invisibly, their costumes lit up by twinkling lights, their voices disembodied and mysterious, particularly well evoked by the delicacy and lightness of the orchestral playing. How beautifully this imagery captured the pizzicatos of the “fairy” music. Yet the phrase “Ill met by moonlight” is also expressed in the disturbing undertones of menace in the music. The imagery may be charming to us, conditioned by years of Disney cartoons, but to Shakespeare and to Mendelssohn, the fairy world represented something rather more unsettling and dangerous. Hence the inherent threat in the plot, the concept that reality can suddenly be overturned, revealing chaos. The popular misconception of Mendelssohn as a composer of mere sweetness is undermined by the way he responded to these elements of the play in his music. This is particularly vivid in the Nocturne, where the dissonances emphasize the distortions of the dream state. This even prefigures Wagner. As Tatiana says, music creates “charmèd sleep”.

In a talk before the concert, Claire van Kampen, Director of Theatre Music at the Globe, spoke of the use of music in Shakespeare's plays. Instruments were used for symbolic reasons, not simply to provide a tune. Audiences would have picked up on their significance: when Bottom asks Titania for “tongs and bones”, he is asking for music of the basest, lowest form, music played in taverns for dancing animals. It underlines the difference between himself and Titania in the social order. Hence, musical instruments are used constantly in this production to integrate music and action. The magic potion is dispensed through two parts of a clarinet, and Bottom's donkey ears are symbolised by headgear made of two conjoined horns. Demetrius and Lysander duel with trombones, and the bower on which Bottom and Titania sleep is a cello case.

The interface between reality and unreality, between play and music is again brilliantly realised in the dialogue between Philostrate and Theseus. Philostrate may be a minor character but he is the master of ceremonies in court, just as Oberon was in fairy land. How appropriate that his lines should be spoken by Ivan Fischer himself, conductor of the orchestra! He delivers his lines deadpan, which is utterly fitting for it is he who pours scorn on the play the workmen will present. “It is nothing, nothing in the world”. Yet is it? Or is his the voice of sobriety denying the anarchic reversal of order that the workmen's play represents? It's entirely apt that the workmen use the symbolism of music in their play, because to an audience of musicians their masque is terrifying. Wall drills a tool into a violin case and paints it. Pyramus stabs himself with a violin bow, then shoots himself with a trumpet. Then a violin is snatched from a musician, placed on the floor and danced around clumsily – audiences brought up to revere instruments find this more unsettling than any mere banter about social order. Indeed, the instrument is finally smashed to smithereens, and the violinists appear to sob in horror. (It's only a fake).

Subversion seems resolved in the Finale. Or is it just a comforting illusion? This was yet another theatrical masterstroke. The stage was again darkened, returning us to the world of fairies. As the music played, invisible actors decorated the set with luminous lights, encircling the orchestra with magical, glowing light, as if bringing them, too, into the realm of magic. Literally, it was an enactment of the text “Through the house give glimmering light”, set by Mendelssohn as a chorus, for the actors then proceeded up the aisles, placing garlands of glowing light around members of the audience. One was placed over my head – how I felt at one with all those levels of reality, and integrated with the play and music! Oberon blesses the happy resolution and Puck says good night to all.

Even London itself seemed blessed by magic. As I emerged into the “real world”, I crossed the bridge over the Thames. A million lights twinkled from the buildings of the city, sparkling like fairy lights: so different from grimy reality. I danced along the footpath waving my garland in the air, oblivious to what others might think. For a moment the magic was still working for me.


Anne Ozorio




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