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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream Op. 64 – an opera in three acts after William Shakespeare (1960) [144:36]
James Bowman (counter-tenor) - Oberon; Lillian Watson (soprano) - Tytania; Dexter Fletcher (spoken) - Puck; John Graham Hall (tenor) - Lysander; Henry Herford (baritone) - Demetrius
Della Jones (mezzo) – Hermia; Jill Gomez (soprano) - Helena; Norman Bailey (bass) - Theseus; Penelope Walker (soprano) - Hippolyta; Donald Maxwell (bass) - Bottom; Roger Bryson (tenor) – Peter Quince; Adrian Thompson (tenor) - Francis Flute; Robert Horn (tenor)- Snoat; Andrew Gallacher (tenor) - Snug; Richard Suart (tenor) - Starveling; Simon Hart; Gregory Pierre; Andrew Mead; Nicholas Watson – Fairies.
City of London Sinfonia/Richard Hickox
rec. November 1990, Studio 1, Abbey Road, London
VIRGIN CLASSICS 3818322 [77.14 + 77.12]

There are those who consider that the original 1966 Britten-conducted Decca recording of this opera remains unbeatable. I have recently read a terrifically enthusiastic review by Chia Han-Leon which takes about the ‘embodiment of intelligent scoring’ and the genius of making Puck a spoken part and of Alfred Deller’s supreme and unbeatable qualities. Yet there are and must be other approaches and interpretations. Back in 1990 this one hit the record shops. The recording came out of a very successful run of performances by Opera London that year. The booklet reproduces several attractive colour photos of the production.
I was returning to the music after an absence of over a decade and I must admit to being disappointed. The opera, apparently written quickly, seems to lack cohesion and substance. I found that this recording was in many ways very close to Britten’s early version, which I had got to know quite well at one time, both in tempo and in atmosphere. But you will want to know why the performance leaves me unsatisfied and despite this whether this is the version for you.
First, this box set offers no complete text. This is one of the cut-backs seemingly necessitated by placing the double album at medium price. Sadly not all of the singers have such good diction so you will need to listen carefully. The excellent booklet does however offer a very useful résumé of the scenes and I know some people prefer that approach. Turning to individual singers, I must point the finger at James Bowman as Oberon and Henry Herford at Demetrius. Bowman carries all the authority of having worked with Britten and Pears in the 1960s and 1970s. However by 1990 he had developed a slightly hooty and at times, unfocused tone which can distort the words.
Talking of the text one should not underestimate the brilliant way that Britten and Pears edited the play to make it suitable for opera. Nevertheless Britten does engage in repeated lines which in many other composers - including Gerald Finzi - rarely do. Perhaps he felt that some padding out was necessary. Michael Kennedy, in his ‘Master Musicians’ series book on Britten (Dent, London 1981) comments “they have concentrated the essentials of the action into a superb framework for music”. Later Kennedy reminds us of what the text produced “Almost of equal importance with the thematic material” generated for each character “are the different instrumental groupings, for example, percussion for fairies; strings and woodwind for humans; bassoon and deeper brass for the rustics.”
Britten’s treatment of each character and the way in which each performer tackles his demands is key to understanding the overall concept. Let’s take the ‘mechanicals’ or as Britten calls them ‘The Rustics’. Is it possible to write ‘funny’ music? Is there a danger of poking fun at simple country characters beyond what Shakespeare actually intended? In my view Britten’s characterisation is mannered and dull in Act I. In Act III, the play within the play, he writes genuinely witty and sensitive music for each character. It is, quite rightly, pointed out that in this section Britten spoofs Italian opera, especially Donizetti. Thisby’s aria which appears to be in a different key from the orchestra offers good fun. But I can also hear Sullivan in these strong characterisations, the Lion particularly so, with its soldier-like accompaniment and rhythm. I do not find Bottom successful. Both in the music given to him and in Donald Maxwell’s overly authoritative portrayal he seems to be more the precursor of King Nebuchadnezzar in ‘The Burning Fiery Furnace’ which was to follow six years later. Sadly the character lacks humour and I find it impossible to find sympathy with his simplistic enjoyment of the fairy den or with his rustic companions.
It would be tedious and unnecessary to discuss all the performers, but I would mention the Fairies. Being Britten these are of course a quartet of boys; in this case drawn from Trinity Boys Choir. The choir’s inspirational director, the great David Squibb, ensures that they are superbly drilled and very mature in their performance. Dexter Fletcher has a wonderful way with his spoken text and a great sense of timing. From the booklet photos he looks as if he had a suitably panther-like quality and even a touch of androgyny. Each of the women seems to be very well cast and it is an especial pleasure to hear Jill Gomez in such spirited voice.
There is an great sense of stereo spacing but sometimes a voice is not quite picked up. I found myself having to adjust the volume on the amplifier, especially for the initial tracks of Act III which opens with magical woodland music and builds to a climax as the lovers angrily emerge, searching for their partners.
As I am sure you can detect I am somewhat luke-warm about both the opera and this recording. To offer a strong counter-view I will end with another quote; this one by Gerhard von Westerman from his useful ‘Opera Guide’ (Thames and Hudson, 1964): “The play and opera take place on three planes; the world of the fairies, the world of the lovers, and the world of the rustics. Britten has provided each with characteristic music, and [the result] must rank as a masterpiece.” Sadly I cannot entirely agree, but you might.
Gary Higginson


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