Midsummer Night's Music

Classic Arts Features   Midsummer Night's Music
Mendelssohn meets Shakespeare at Great Performers.

It's unusual these days not to have at least some familiarity with A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare's intoxicating journey into a land of fairies and royals, love potions and the pain that accompanies misplaced desire. At the very least one might know of the incidental music inspired by the play, which Mendelssohn wrote in the early 19th century and to which Balanchine choreographed the beloved New York City Ballet masterpiece. But rare indeed is the venture that knits the text and music together in the manner undertaken at Lincoln Center next month. On February 24 Ivan Fischer will conduct the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Choir of Enlightenment in a performance of Mendelssohn's score to accompany a semi-staged production of the play by English director Tim Carroll: as cultural fusions go, this one looks hard to beat.

The event, a New York one-off, will be followed the same week with performances in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and then in London. It arrives in Manhattan as the brainchild of Marshall Marcus, chief executive of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, who was spurred on by Fischer's belief that such a venture could work. In London, the evening forms part of a series at the South Bank Center under the banner title, Mendelssohn: A Generous Spirit. But the point is that every concert can stand on its own, and Marcus has no doubts that his music-theater evening in store for New Yorkers will do just that.

Marcus has been with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) since the company, internationally renowned for its reclamation of the playing of period instruments, was founded in 1986. He was chief violinist the last time the OAE attempted anything approaching this project, which was a decade or so ago for the City of London Festival. This time, Marcus says, the OAE is upping the ante, creating "something that's really rather new: a unique piece, even a rather modern piece, that is both music and drama but is not an opera. It's basically the Shakespeare play with incidental music‹and quite complex to put on."

What normally happens with the Mendelssohn, says Marcus, is "people do the overture and one or two pieces of music," whereas the composer's complete score lasts nearly 50 minutes. "People are used to going to the theater or to the opera, where you see a drama unfold: opera is theater, but what this does is something completely different. You get a section of the play and then you get some music, almost as if the music is a commentary on what's going on." The result is what Marcus terms "a serial use of theater and music," as opposed to the two art forms working in parallel.

That it is happening at all honors the industry of Carroll, a 39-year-old theater director who has worked more recently in opera. (He is now director of productions for New Kent Opera, which is based in the coastal town of Margate, southeast of London.) As someone who has worked regularly in London at Shakespeare's Globe on period versions of the full-length plays, Carroll seemed a logical choice to partner the OAE on this venture, especially given his newfound immersion in opera. "Having been the pioneering orchestra for period instruments, the OAE seemed exactly the right company to work with," says Carroll. "There are orchestras where one would go with great trepidation, where they might want to sit and play and not take any part." By contrast, Carroll's vision of the evening requires the players "to be very bold and adventurous. I won't be asking them to act as such, but I will be asking them to take part."

Carroll will, of course, be working with actors, specifically eight Britons, all of whom he has worked with before either at the Globe or at London's prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where he regularly directs. Puck will be played by James Garnon, who was Mercutio in the Globe Romeo and Juliet that the director staged last summer on the popular open-air stage. Oberon and Titania‹Martin Turner and Melanie Jessop, respectively‹are both alumni of the Globe, while the four lovers will double as the mechanicals in an attempt to compress the play's full array of characters into so relatively small a cast. (Paul Chahidi, who is playing Bottom, appeared as Maria in Carroll's revelatory all-male Globe Theater Twelfth Night, starring Mark Rylance, though not in the version that ended up touring the U.S. to huge acclaim.)

Carroll regards this assignment as "very much an experiment" and trusts audiences will take it in the same spirit. "Given that we're performing in concert venues rather than theaters means that we have to somehow embrace the fact that it is a concert. We can't try and build a whole forest outside Athens, in addition to the orchestra, so somehow the orchestra will have to be the forest," which is where the active participation of the players comes in. "The concert itself is the setting of the play, so it isn't marginal at all. The idea is that the play arises out of the concert; if anything, it would be quite nice to start the evening as though it were a concert and then to allow the play to overwhelm the concert."

The music, too, is very specifically incorporated by Mendelssohn into Shakespeare's text, which will itself be cut by almost half in order to accommodate the score. "The vast majority of the music is explicitly linked to the fairies and the magic of the forest, and, for me, that clarity of approach in Mendelssohn means there's something very unarguable about the music he chooses to write. For him, this is the music of magic, so there's a great tension and anticipation in waiting for the magic to begin." None of Shakespeare's first act, for instance, has any Mendelssohn to go with it, which only adds to the impact when the music does arrive. "It's very exciting to think of all these realistic scenes surrounded by the potential of magic," says Carroll, "which quite soon, of course, does kick in."

Wielding the baton will be Fischer, the Hungarian maestro, who has conducted Mendelssohn's orchestral excerpts and incidental music before but never combined with the play. "It's a wonderful opportunity, and I'm very excited to do the real thing: not some kind of compromise but the real thing," says Fischer. The result requires what Fischer calls "skillful, very high-quality coordination between music and theater; it's a hair-raisingly difficult thing to do, because each word and each musical note needs to fit according to this plan by Mendelssohn."

But if artists don't take risks, they don't enjoy the rewards that go with them. "I like this type of theater because it's refreshing and something very natural and organic," says Fischer. Says Carroll, who has directed Midsummer once before at a south London drama school in 1990, "I'm thrilled at the fact that the offer to do this production came with a built-in angle, i.e. the music. It's impossible in doing this project to strain for originality." The freshness and excitement are there just waiting to be seen and heard.

Matt Wolf is London theater critic for Variety and author of Sam Mendes at the Donmar: Stepping into Freedom.

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