VIRGINIA OPERA’S DREAM: THE MYSTICISM OF HAPPINESS

The great British essayist G. K. Chesterton considered Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream to be a masterful presentation of “the mysticism of happiness.”

He went on to explain:

“That is to say, it is the conception that when a man lives upon a borderland he may find himself in the spiritual or supernatural atmosphere, not only through being profoundly sad or meditative, but by being extravagantly happy….It may well be questioned whether in any other literary work in the world is so vividly rendered a social and spiritual atmosphere….A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a psychological study, not of a solitary man, but of a spirit which unites mankind.”[i]

We have the Virginia Opera to thank for bringing a production of the great Shakespearean comedy to our area, albeit in an operatic form.

America was not always the Shakespeare desert it now appears to be.

Since September 15, 1752 -for 266 years – Shakespeare has been playing in Virginia, beginning with the Hallam troupe’s production of the Merchant of Venice in Williamsburg. They even composed a special Prologue for the occasion:

Haste to Virginia’s plains, my sons! Repair!

        The Goddess said, “Go, confident to find

        An audience sensible, polite, and kind.

Their repertoire also included Richard III, Hamlet, and. Othello. Though playing for a population much smaller than that of current Virginia, and to an audience less literate and with a smaller vocabulary than today’s Virginia, the professional company managed to make a living. Granted the colonial entertainment options were few, but so was the amount of free time for the average eighteenth century American.

The situation for Shakespeare today is very different, not only in Virginia, but throughout the country.

In fact, the elephant in the living room of American culture is the scarcity of productions of the plays of William Shakespeare.

Every year even the so-named “Shakespeare theaters” present fewer and fewer productions of the Bard’s actual plays. Were you to randomly select an American “Shakespeare Theater” you would find that no more than 50 % of the productions offered are by William Shakespeare. Instead “Shakespeare lite” takes their place. Plays like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief, Shakespeare in Love, Red Velvet, Dunsinane, and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) attempt to fool the public into thinking Shakespeare is a regular feature of the theatre season. The ruse continues with stage versions of Dickens, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Jane Austen, all written by contemporary authors, scheduled as part of a theatrical season to convince the patrons that the theater continues to do “the classics”.

They aren’t.

It seems the only place one may regularly find at least Shakespeare’s characters and stories is at the opera. At least the opera doesn’t pretend that Verdi, Gounod or Britten is by Shakespeare. However, of the hundreds of operas based on plays by Shakespeare, none is more faithful to the letter of the Bard’s text than Benjamin Britten.

As to Benjamin Britten’s musical contribution to Shakespeare’s work, I tend to agree with the New York Times’ Harold C. Schonberg who, at the opera’s premiere in 1963, wrote

His music exhibits his intelligent, brittle, enameled, skillful art. It is not music that is very moving… The trouble is that this kind of music seldom engages the emotions, nor is it ever descriptive of character.

He did, however, think that Britten “writes fine fairy music.” In fact, the fairies have historically captured the fancy of many artists working on A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

For example, in 1914 Granville Barker, the founder of England’s Court Theatre, and an early Shakespearean innovator wrote:

Then come the fairies. Can even genius succeed in putting fairies on the stage? The pious commentators say not…. The fairies are the producer’s test.[ii]

Barker’s fairies were adults, gilded – all gold, from head to foot; faces, hands, everything. They were the talk of the town

In an odd way, besides the fairies, key elements of A Midsummer Night’s Dream which make Shakespeare’s play a natural for opera have already contributed to an opera before Benjamin Britten got his hands on it.

Emanuel Schikaneder and W.A. Mozart’s Magic Flute has all the ingredients of Shakespeare’s great comedy. The inciting incident of both plays is a custody battle between parents. In Shakespeare, the battle is between Titania and Oberon over their Indian changeling. In Mozart, the parents of Pamina – The Queen of the Night and Sarastro- battle over their daughter. Into both plays a commoner arrives to complicate matters – Bottom, a weaver in Shakespeare’s Dream, and Papageno, a bird catcher in Mozart’s masterpiece. Finally, all pairs of lovers in each story (Hermia, Helena, Lysander, Demetrius, and Pamino and Tamino) undergo ordeals before they can be united.

Like Mozart’s Flute, Shakespeare’s great comedy is framed in a serious action- the custody battle between Theseus and Hippolyta. The Three comic plots which follow constitute the main action of the play – the world of fairies and the tiff between Oberon and Titania, the plans of Bottom and his mechanicals to stage a play, and the resolution of the Athenian royal lovers’ dilemma. The characters divide into the three plot groups. Britten captures these disparate stories with contrasting sound schemes. From the ethereal beauty of the fairies to the rough and tumble of the Mechanicals.

And “the greatness of the Dream begins and ends”, according to Yale’s Harold Bloom “in Bottom and Puck.”[iii] Bottom and his mechanical friends represent our most human qualities, while Puck and his fairy cohorts represent our most ethereal aspect. Both Bottom and Puck are what Elder Olsen[iv] would call “well-intentioned fools engaged in plots of folly, because their actions are misguided or in error.

Britten has fitted his music to the characters’ social station. Bottom and his mates lumber while the fairies tinkle. The famous tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe becomes, for Britten, a parody of Italian grand opera.

In both the play and opera Shakespeare reveals the causes of what we call “coincidences.” Harold C Goddard notes, “This world of senses in which we live is but the surface of a vaster unseen world by which the actions of men are affected or overruled.”[v]

The resolution of the Titania-Oberon crisis brings the others to a happy end as well. Titania gives up her claim on the child to free herself, and in the process Bottom, from Puck’s enchantment. Oberon and Puck first complicate the flight of Hermia and Lysander from Athens, then the pursuit by Demetrius and Helena, and finally brings them all safely to a happy conclusion. All three levels of reality end in harmony.

At first the two young men, Demetrius and Lysander, are in love with the same woman, Hermia. Hermia loves Lysander, but her father wants her to marry Demetrius, the man loved by Hermia’s best friend, Helena, who is loved by no one. In the woods, Puck and the love potion eventually sort things out. The properly paired-off couples join Duke Theseus and Hippolyta for a harmonious triple wedding.

The Virginia Opera’s production is directed by Michael Shell. The dominant feature of this particular production is the lack of an overall visual concept to unify and bring coherence both among the costumes and between the costumes, also designed by Mr. Shell, and the setting designed by Shoko Kambara. Only the dynamic lighting and projections designed by Driscoll Otto evidence an attempt to bring consistency to the production’s extremely eclectic components.

The singers display no irritation singing Britten’s music which irritated some in the audience listening to Britten’s deliberately atonal and unmelodic score of almost unrelieved recitative. Conductor Adam Turner once again valiantly marshals his forces in service of the opera. The writting of Oberon reveals an odd interpretive choice on the part. The name “Oberon” derives from the German for “bear” and most traditional interpreters of Oberon sport a bear-like physique. (For example, in 2016 the BBC cast Nonso Anozie, the actor best known for portraying Qarthian businessman Xaro Xhoan Daxos in Game of Thrones.) With the elfish Owen Willetts, Mr. Shell adds a physicalization which accentuates the idea that this dark Oberon is fonder of cartwheeling Puck (Morgan White) than he is of his beautiful wife Tytania (Heather Buck). Ms. Buck sings beautifully and acts as best the stiff score allows. One only wished she had some melodic Donizetti or Puccini to sing instead. Kristen Choi’s Hermia and Mary-Hollis Hundley’s Helena give strong acting performances, even though, for some reason, they spend most of their stage time in their underwear. Of the mechanicals, Bille Bruley as Flute dominates the play-within-a play as the appropriately mugging Thisby.  Adriane Kerr and Ryan Kuster bring dignity and an interesting worldly relationship to the wedding couple Hippolyta and Theseus.

However, it is the fairies who steal this production, as they did that of Harley Granville Barker over a century ago. Brooke Jones (Cobweb), Hannah Ramsbottom (Peaseblossom), Gabrielle Pinkney (Mustardseed), Nairobi King (Moth), Reann Nichols, Kennedy Stone, Elissa Dresdner, Gemauria Fennell, Lauren Miles, Sofia Vazquez, Meghan Ewing, Morgan Royal-Hartman, and Cassandra Taxter display a professionalism beyond their years. The disciplined physical and vocal performances, alert and in the moment at all times, does great tribute to their vocal instructors at the Governor’s School for the Arts and Shelby Rhoades, the Virginia Opera’s Principal Coach.

To paraphrase Hippolyta in Act IV, the Virginia Opera production presents too much “musical a discord,” and too little “sweet thunder”. Even so, we must admit that Britten’s operatic Shakespeare is far better than no Shakespeare at all.

With A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare portrays his understanding of “The Great Chain of Being”, the dominant Renaissance model for understanding the universe and one can never see that too often. For Shakespeare uniquely sees the universe is not a hierarchical William Le Baron Jenney vertical skyscraper with God on top in the supernatural world and the mechanicals on the bottom in the natural world. Rather Shakespeare sees the Universe as a horizontal series of overlapping Frank Lloyd Wright atmospheric and  porous prairie houses.[vi]

Shakespeare created a decidedly Christian worldview of light, described by Chesterton as a world, not merely of dark disconnected things, but a creation capable of revealing God and his works at any moment, at any place. Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream echoes the world of St. Paul:

“For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead.”[vii]

The primary characteristic of Shakespeare’s Chain of Being, as of a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is the constant loving, happy, and often unexpected, communion between heaven and earth.

(NOTE: My usual practice is to include a photo of the production program. This time I am not. The poster and program for this production was, like most of the marketing images this season, offensive, soft sado-masoschistic. I hope for better with 2018-19 ).

[i] Chesterton, G. K. “Shakespeare’s Mysticism of Happiness.” Bloom’s Literary Reference Online. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2013.

[ii] “Introduction to the acting edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (London: Heinemann, 1914).

[iii] Harold Bloom. Shakespeare. The Reinvention of the Human. (New York: Riverhead Books, 1978).

[iv] Elder Olson, The Theory of Comedy. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1968.

[v] Harold C. Goddard. The Meaning of Shakespeare. Volume I (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951).

[vi] Concept from Father Stephen Freeman. Everywhere Present. Christianity in a One-Story Universe. Chesterton, Indiana: Conciliar Press, 2010.

[vii] St. Paul, Letter to the Romans. Chapter 1, Verse 20.

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