Listening to Britten – A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op.64

The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania by Joseph Noel Paton. Used courtesy of Wikipedia

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op.64 – Opera in three acts, Op.64 (July – August 1960, Britten aged 46)

Dedication Stephen Reiss (Aldeburgh Festival General Manager)
Text adapted from William Shakespeare by Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears
Language English
Duration 145′

Audio and Video clips

A brief clip from rehearsals for Opera North’s 2013 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Selected clips from the opera’s first recording, conducted by Benjamin Britten. The principal soloists are Elizabeth Harwood (Tytania), Alfred Deller (Oberon), Peter Pears Lysander, Thomas Hemsley (Demetrius), Heather Harper (Helena), Josephine Veasey (Hermia), Owen Brannigan (Bottom) and Norman Lumsden (Quince), with the choirs of Downside School, Purley and Emanuel School Wandsworth and the London Symphony Orchestra. With thanks to Decca.

Act 1
“Over hill, over dale”

“Oberon is passing fell and wrath”

“Well, go thy way”

“How now my love?”

“Is all our company here?”

“Fair love, you faint with wand’ring in the wood”

“Through the forest have I gone”

“Come, now a roundel and a fairy song”

“You spotted snakes with double tongue”

“What thou seest when thou dost wake”

Act 2
Introduction: The wood

“Are we all met?”

“Hail, mortal, hail!”

“Flower of this purple dye”

“Puppet? Why so?”

“This is thy negligence”

“Up and down, up and down”

Act 3
“My gentle Robin, see’st thou this sweet sight?”

“Helena! Hermi! Demetrius! Lysander!”

“When my cue comes, call me”

“Have you sent to Bottom’s house?”

“Now, fair Hippolyta”

“Gentles, perchance you wonder at this show”

“O grim-look’d night, O night with hue so black”

“O wall, full often hast thou heard my moans”

“You ladies, you whose gentle hearts do fear”

“Sweet moon, I thank thee for thy sunny beams”

“Asleep, my love?”

“Come, your Bergomask”

“Now the hungry lion roars”

Background, Plot and Critical Reception

‘I have always loved A Midsummer Night’s Dream‘, wrote Benjamin Britten for the Observer in 1960. ‘As I get older, I find that I increasingly prefer the work either of the very young or the very old. I always feel A Midsummer Night’s Dream to be by a very young man, whatever Shakespeare’s actual age when he wrote it.’

Britten was writing the opera, his first in five years, for the opening of the refurbished Jubilee Hall in Aldeburgh. There was no requirement for a librettist, with Shakespeare’s play the starting point, which sped up the composition – yet even then, staggeringly, the opera was completed in a mere seven months.

Britten and Pears worked tirelessly on pruning the libretto for the stage – in the words of the composer, this ‘entailed simplifying and cutting an extremely complex story. One can only hope that one hasn’t lost too much, but since the sung word takes so much longer to complete than the spoken word, to have done the complete A Midsummer Night’s Dream would have produced an opera as long as the Ring.

Claire Seymour, in her book The Operas of Benjamin Britten, looks at Britten’s interpretation of the story. ‘Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream presents a complex web of possible relationships, one aspect of which is the fight between Oberon and Tytania for possession of the exotic Indian changeling boy. The reasons for their battle are never fully explained, and the ‘queerness’ of this element of the plot is often overlooked. Britten raises their struggle to the centre of his opera and unmasks its sinister undertones. In this way their conflict recalls the previous fights for the possession of an ‘innocent’ depicted by Britten, most especially that between Quint and the Governess, in which love had been dramatised as both a pure force of goodness and a mania bordering on violence.’

Britten was ill during the winter of composition, suffering with persistent flu. He was also suffering from depression. His good friend Piers Dunkerley had recently committed suicide, a tragic turn of events that affected him heavily. Moreover, Peter Pears was away singing. Yet despite this he maintained a punishing schedule. He wrote for a relatively small orchestra but still one much bigger than earlier operas for the English Opera Group. In the same Observer article he details how he wanted specific instrumental colours for each of the three ‘groups’ in the play – the lovers (strings and woodwind), the rustics (bassoon, brass and lower strings) and the fairies (two harps, harpsichord, celesta and percussion).

Michael Oliver expands on the musical language of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ‘Britten’s lifelong exploration of the tension between adjacent notes and keys is combined with his more recent investigation of the uses to which a tonal composer could put Schoenberg’s rigorous use of all twelve notes of the chromatic scale. This expanded language, together with experience of an opera as systematically planned as Billy Budd, of a ballet necessarily divided into many short numbers and of another opera, The Turn of the Screw, in many sections but powerfully unified by sophisticated use of variation technique, enabled him in A Midsummer Night’s Dream to write an opera of which each act is firmly structured, but in quite a different way.’

Even more radical was the choice of countertenor Alfred Deller to play Oberon, described by Neil Powell as ‘a bold and risky idea; Deller himself was uncertain and had to be gently persuaded by Pears.’ He goes on to note that ‘as Deller had feared, critics found fault with his stage presence (though not with his singing) and he was indeed ‘deleted’ from the cast when the production transferred to Covent Garden – though by the opera house management rather than by Britten, who reinstated him for the work’s 1966 recording.

Michael Oliver describes how, in Act 1, Britten ‘introduces the opera’s three ‘worlds’ in a symmetrical sequence of five scenes, linked and framed by a prelude, interludes and postlude of ‘forest music’. Act 2, where the three worlds interact, is more flexibly divided but again unified by a refrain, in the form of variations on a sequence of ‘magic chords’. Act 3, the return to normality after the midsummer night’s encounters, uses brief scenes in which each of the three ‘worlds’ react to what has happened to them as upbeats to the reconciliation at Theseus’s court, the mechanicals’ grotesque play of Pyramus and Thisbe, and a concluding epilogue for the fairies.’

Neil Powell quotes Peter Hall, who has directed both Shakespeare’s and Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, who ‘once memorably remarked that the difference between them is that in Britten’s version there is no love.’ Claire Seymour concludes that the opera ‘could be Britten’s own spell, a musical ‘dream’ which he hoped would be a realisation of his yearning for a synthesis of imagination and reality’.


Britten’s return to the operatic stage incorporates a number of changes in his style since his last opera, The Turn of the Screw, and also brings a borderline obsession with night-themed music to a head. He has already addressed this on a small scale, but here the night comes to life with the sounds of spooks that are far more friendly than those described in the recent Nocturne. Yet it is that piece, specifically the final song – a setting of Shakespeare’s Sonnet XLIII – that is the springboard for A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The focus on his own particular interpretation of twelve tone music remains, with imaginative ways of getting all twelve pitches into a series of ‘magic chords’, which help signpost this mystical music.

The new found austerity experienced in vocal works Songs from the Chinese and the Sechs Hölderlin-Fragmente is not so much in evidence here, though Britten does still write as economically as ever, Shakespeare’s complex plot distilled into a shade under two and a half hours. More in evidence is the exoticism of his trip with Pears to the far east. And where better to use this musical expression than in a story of dreams and enchantment?

The writing here is of such assurance that it is difficult to spot the joins in the story Britten and Pears have fashioned from the original. The listener is immediately captivated by the sliding chords with which the orchestra introduces the forest, the mood immediately perfumed and heady. This music, with its bright sonics and glinting textures, carries the influence of Stravinsky’s orchestral writing, as does the music for Puck, whose tapping drum follows him everywhere, but ultimately it is a scaled down return to the brilliance of the Prince of the Pagodas.

Yet it is in the brilliance of the vocal writing where this opera really stands out. The Purcellian splendour of Britten’s writing for Oberon is undoubtedly influenced by Alfred Deller, for who it is written, but at the other end of the scale is the sonorous writing for Bottom, which brings a brief reminiscence of the sound of Billy Budd into play, especially when the brass are close at hand. Deller, when he sings ‘Welcome, wanderer – hast though the flower there?’ – Oberon planning to enchant Tytania – casts a spell in that statement alone. When the four lovers wake from their dream the music has a floating radiance as if suspended on a cloud, the vocal harmonies wondrously blended together in a brightly coloured D major.

There are some very curious and very contrasting stylistic effects, alongside the occasional reference to Bali. In more than one instance when the rustics are singing the music approaches a barbershop style in its close harmonies, while in the next scene Lysander and Hermia are reaching a rich unison that could be from Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. Tytania is a rapturously written coloratura soprano part that takes its inspiration from Donizetti, and the high ‘D’ reached in her first aria is a spectacular moment indeed.

This is intense, very heady music, that brilliantly captures the exaggerations of dream-influenced thought at night, but which works equally well when experienced in the bright light of day. Yet as Claire Seymour notes there is much less love evident here in Shakespeare’s original, as if Britten wanted to focus on the pull of night time thoughts than a more conventional interpretation as a romantic comedy. Because of that it is the elements beneath the surface of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that are perhaps the most compelling and revealing, the thoughts to one side or the furtive collaborations between characters. Britten brings all of these to life in the course of a compelling and vibrant drama.

Recordings used

Elizabeth Harwood (Tytania), Alfred Deller (Oberon), Peter Pears (Lysander), Thomas Hemsley (Demetrius), Heather Harper (Helena), Josephine Veasey (Hermia), John Shirley-Quirk (Theseus), Helen Watts (Hippolyta), Owen Brannigan (Bottom), Norman Lumsden (Quince), Choir of Downside School, Purley, Emanuel School Wandsworth, Boys’ Choir, London Symphony Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (Decca)

Sylvia McNair (Tytania), Brian Asawa (Oberon), John Mark Ainsley (Lysander), Paul Whelan (Demetrius), Janice Watson (Helena), Ruby Philogene (Hermia), Robert Lloyd (Bottom), Gwynne Howell (Quince), New London Children’s Choir, London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Colin Davis (Philips)

Lillian Watson (Tytania), James Bowman (Oberon), John Graham-Hall (Lysander), Henry Herford (Demetrius), Jill Gomez (Helena),Della Jones (Hermia), Donald Maxwell (Bottom), Roger Bryson (Quince), Trinity Boys Choir, City of London Sinfonia / Richard Hickox (Virgin Classics)

Íride Martínez (Tytania), Bejun Mehta (Oberon), Timothy Robinson (Lysander), Jared Holt (Demetrius), Kate Royal (Helena), Tove Dahlberg (Hermia), Matthew Rose (Bottom), Henry Waddington (Quince), Trinity Boys Choir, London Philharmonic Orchestra / Ilan Volkov (Glyndebourne)

A Midsummer Night’s Dream has a very fine discography. For digital versions Richard Hickox conducts a very clear account of the score, bringing out the intricacies of Britten’s orchestral writing in particular. His leads, James Bowman as Oberon and Lillian Watson as Tytania, are exellent. Ilan Volkov’s version on Glyndebourne is the most recent here, and is a pictorial account of the play, capped by Matthew Rose who is superb as Bottom. Just occasionally the textures get too crowded, though, which can be overwhelming.

No such observations with Sir Colin Davis, whose version features, as Gramophone magazine rightly observes, ‘the casting of the lovers with young singers in their early prime’. It is a noticeably quicker version, moving at a hectic pace in Bottom’s Dance in particular.

Good as these versions are, however, none comes close to Britten’s own. The soloists are quite simply superb, but Alfred Deller as Oberon the one whose voice stands out most – but the scenes with Pears and Veasey are unexpectedly romantic, too. It is the orchestral sonorities in this recording that are the most vivid, though, and the boys’ choruses are brilliantly realised. Further to that the recording itself appears to the ear to be multidimensional, the characters moving around to dizzying effect and bringing the score even more fully to life, so much so that even listening on the bus on headphones transported me to the enchanted forest!


Three of the versions listed above can be heard on Spotify. Britten’s own recording from 1966 can be heard by clicking here, while Sir Colin Davis conducts his 1995 recording here. The version from Richard Hickox, recorded in 1990, is here.

Also written in 1960: Walton – Symphony no.2

Next up: Sonata for cello and piano, Op.65

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5 Responses to Listening to Britten – A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op.64

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