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Shakespeare / Mendelssohn: A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Soloists, City of London Sinfonia, Royal Shakespeare Company, City of London Sinfonia Voices, Douglas Boyd, conductor, Jonathan Best, director. St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 25.3.2006 (G Pu)

Bottom: Desmond Barrit
Hermia: Sian Brooke
Quince: Alan David
Lysander/Flute: Daniel Hawksford
Puck: Ian Hughes
Titania/Hippolyta: Diana Kent
Egeus/Straveling: David Killick
Demetrius/Snug: William Mannering
Helena: Rachel Pickup
Oberon/Theseus: Martin Turner

Modern styles of theatrical production are, to put it mildly, very different from those prevailing in Mendelssohn’s day. We are never likely to see again the kind of production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for which Mendelssohn’s incidental music was originally written. As a result the music has been almost entirely divorced from the play; we hear extracts from it as a suite in the concert hall or on our CD players. At best, we dutifully read the programme notes telling us where in the text each piece was played.

What a joy – and what a revelation – then, to hear the music placed fully back in the context of the play’s words and action and to find that even in a ‘modern’ production the music can make a major contribution. What this production does is place the forces of the London Sinfonia to the rear of the stage, leaving the front of the stage for the furniture of a well-provided late nineteenth century or Edwardian drawing room – sofas, pot plants, bowls of fruit and so on. This is the ‘set’ on which a group act out – as if by way of an evening’s domestic entertainment – Shakespeare’s play (or, at any rate, an intelligently abridged version of it!). The furnishings of their drawing room include an early gramophone – the imagined source of the music which accompanies their performance.

Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture was written when he was a mere seventeen and was not designed for theatrical use; rather it was an imaginative ‘translation’ into music of the composer’s response to the play. With its four themes for the four groups of characters (the fairies, Theseus and Hippolyta, the young lovers and the rude mechanicals), its movement from, and back to, the four sustained woodwind chords which represent the supernatural realm inhabited by Oberon, the Overture has, in miniature, both the symmetry of Shakespeare’s play and its wild fancifulness. The London Sinfonia, conducted by Douglas Boyd, brought out by turns the boisterousness (as in the falling ninth which seems to enact Bottom’s donkeyfied voice), the delicate vivacity (as in the rapid staccato passages for violins, preparation for the later fairy dances) and the grandeur (as in the hunting horns and echoes recreated by the dialogue of trumpets and woodwinds) of Mendelssohn’s music.

With fitting symmetry, it was another seventeen years later that Mendelssohn was commissioned to write incidental music for a production of the play. He returned to his Overture for materials, reworking these and integrating them with new inventions so seamlessly, that the innocent hearer would assume all parts of the score to have been composed at the same time. In this production we heard not only the familiar orchestral movements such as the lovely Nocturne, played while the young lovers sleep, after Puck’s assurance that all shall be well”. Mendelssohn’s music – with its serene horn solo followed by troubled yet unthreatening passages - perfectly expresses the dramatic situation and, when played as well as it was here, articulates with great tact the emotional and psychological transformations the characters undergo in their magically induced sleep. Elsewhere, music one might have thought over-familiar – the Wedding March most obviously – emerged, in context, with a new dignity and joy. But as well as these set-pieces, we also heard passages in which briefer fragments are interjected as points of punctuation into the action, or where Mendelssohn’s music gives additional resonance to the imagery of Shakespeare’s words. This was strikingly effective in the opening of Act II, not least in the encounter between Oberon and Titania. The exquisite setting of ‘You Spotted Snakes’ was gracefully performed, especially by the soloists Susan Gilmour Bailey and Elizabeth Weisberg.

The cast from the RSC acquitted themselves very well; Desmond Barrit’s interpretation of Bottom came close to stealing the show, but there was no weak link in the company as a whole.

The City of London Sinfonia seemed to exude a degree of love and commitment in the playing of this score. Certainly they made one realise afresh how perfectly judged the music is, its use of orchestral colour never without a clear theatrical purpose. This is functional music and when, as here, it was allowed to fulfil its function, its full beauty and significance were made apparent. Throughout, one was aware of the intelligent aptness of Mendelssohn’s writing, of its refusal to be merely self-indulgent or simple decoration. At the end of the play, Mendelssohn’s music gave additional power and universality to the verbal benedictions of Oberon and Puck, creating a valedictory blessing for both newly married couples and departing audience. In the return to the woodwind chords which had opened the evening the process of comic restoration was made complete – in words and music alike.

Glyn Pursglove



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