Most of us have probably experienced “love at first sight.” But we also know that feeling can turn to “hate at third sight,” or at least indifference! You don’t need hallucinogenic drugs or fairy dust to feel that your eyes deceived you.
In Benjamin Britten’s opera adaptation of Shakespeare’s playful romp, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the eyes have it. It all begins with a spat between the King of Fairies, Oberon, and his Queen, Tytania, over the possession of a young boy. (Some have interpreted Oberon’s insistent desire for the boy as homoerotic, which may have influenced Britten’s choice of a countertenor – a male singer with a range more like that of a female mezzo-soprano – for the role of Oberon. Or, it may have been a wink and a nod at the operatic tradition of Handel’s time. In any case, Min Sang Kim’s unusually ethereal voice fit the role perfectly.) To punish Tytania and win the boy, Oberon resorts to trickery: he has his jester/assistant Puck get the juice from a flower that when applied to the eyes of a sleeping person, induces them to fall in love with the first living creature they set eyes on. He hopes Tytania will fall in love with a “most vile creature,” and in her humiliation, forget the boy. In the first scene we meet the fairies in the forest; the orchestra’s strings play portamento, sliding the pitch without settling on one note, and there is the tinkling sound of the celeste and harp creating an other-worldly, ghostly mood.
The second story line involves two young couples. Lovers Lysander and Hermia are running away to escape her forced marriage to Demetrius. Demetrius also loves Hermia; but he is loved by Helena whom he can’t stand. In the forest, Oberon witnesses an abusive/masochistic interaction between Demetrius and Helena. Demetrius spews hateful invective at her and orders her away, while she sings “I am your Spaniel;” you can insult me or beat me and I will still love you. Whew! The word “love” is used both in this opera and in real life in so many ways that it confuses all of us; and it is this confusion that drives the drama in the opera. What is true love? Who gets to decide whom we marry? What is the right relationship between a man and a woman? How much will people sacrifice for love? And, can you fall in love with an ass? (The answer is yes, and I think someone gave me this magical flower juice before I looked at my kitty cat!) This is a rom-com where we don’t know who to root for; I wasn’t sure I wanted poor Helena to end up with her desired Demetrius. He seemed like a bigger jackass than Bottom, who just has his head turned into the head of an ass by Puck, and who has no faults other than loving himself too much.
Puck accidentally puts the juice onto Lysander’s eyes instead of Demetrius’ so that Lysander now falls for Helena – and the relationships between the four former friends turn to chaos. A sweet duet between Helena and Hermia in which they first remember their sisterly love descends into insult and dischord; Hermia accuses Helena of height chauvinism and Helena calls her a “dwarf.” It’s a shame how men get in the way of women’s friendships! When finally all is righted with the help of more eye drops, the four – tenor Jordan Davidson and baritone Patrick Wilhelm, soprano Taryn Plater and mezzo Christina Esser – sing a soaring quartet “..like a jewel, mine own but not mine own,” in which each repeats the words in an ascending scale in a melody with greater harmony and resolution than in their previous arias. Throughout, the 25-piece orchestra expertly directed by Paul Floyd provided a lush ambience.
The third story involves a bunch of working class guys who were hired to provide the entertainment for the Duke of Athens wedding. They are rehearsing “Pyramus and Thisbe,” a tragedy of forbidden love mirroring that of Lysander and Hermia. The musical style for their appearances is simpler and more folksy than for the other two story lines. The “opera within an opera” they perform in the last act is the high point; the bumbling amateurs cannot help but perform a comedy. Here, Britten spoofs the Italian operatic tradition, making the audience laugh-out-loud. Timothy Madden as Bottom is manic, and maniacally funny. As he sings with his head changed into a donkey’s, his voice seems to break involuntarily into a bray as he kicks up his heels. His impressive physical comedy skills performed while singing in a rich bass/baritone made him an audience favorite.
Throughout the opera, there are constant references to eyes – “the sight of my lady’s eyes,” “Hermia’s lovely eyes,” “my eyes loathe him now,” a “tomb to cover thy sweet eyes” to name a few. And more eye drops are dispensed than if someone was suffering from dry eye. Britten’s libretto lifts up the theme of the beauty and the fallibility of our eyes; he and Shakespeare explore the blurry lines between what we see and what is real. Seeing is not believing! As Puck (played with puckish gumption by Honoka’a’s own Melissa Threlfall) tells us at the end, maybe this whole performance we just witnessed was a dream. In this case, let me say that I believe my eyes: we were truly transported to a different reality on a lovely midsummer’s night.
Meizhu Lui didn’t know there was any other kind of music except classical until she hit junior high! Piano and flute have been her own instruments of choice. She is now pursuing her bucket list goal of deepening her musical knowledge and skills.
Photos: Steve Roby