Opera in three acts (duration 2 hours 25 minutes)
Libretto adapted from Shakespeare’s play by Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears
A quick introduction
When was it written?
October 1959 – May 1960 (revised July-August 1960). The first performance was on 11 June 1960 at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh in the Aldeburgh Festival.
What’s it about?
Set in a forest on Midsummer’s night, the story is driven by the machinations of the King of Fairies, Oberon, and the impish Puck who use a love potion to cause mayhem and misunderstandings. The victims of their pranks are two pairs of would-be lovers, and Bottom the Weaver, the leading man in an amateur theatrical group. The story is a rare ‘light’ opera among Britten’s repertoire, with farcical as well as magical elements.
What does it sound like?
Each group of characters in the opera has their own soundworld: celesta, harp and high woodwind for the fairies, lower brass for the ‘Mechanicals’ (the theatrical group) and more conventional orchestral scoring for the lovers. It has exquisite arias, and one of the most beautiful choruses Britten ever composed in the final act.
Watch & listen
Did you know?
1. Although he originally asked Myfanwy Piper (librettist of The Turn of the Screw) to work on this opera, in the end Britten and Pears cut Shakespeare’s play themselves, reducing the original 5 acts to 3 and losing about half of the text in total.
2. The opera was premiered at Aldeburgh’s Jubilee Hall during the Festival in 1960 to celebrate its refurbishment.
3. Britten and Pears only added one line, which was included to make sense of the plot after all the cuts: Lysander’s ‘compelling thee to marry with Demetrius’, delivered to Hermia.
4. It transferred to Covent Garden in 1961, in a production directed by John Gielgud.
5. Britten scholar Mervyn Cooke has observed that Britten and Pears cut the section where the two pairs of lovers get married: so they are dispatched ‘to bed’ at the end of the opera technically unwed.
Time and Place: A wood near Athens
Act 1. As twilight falls, fairies attendant upon their queen Tytania enter, followed by Puck, spirit attendant on the fairy-king, Oberon. Soon the royal pair arrives, separately, having fallen out over a little changeling boy. They argue, then Tytania and her fairies leave. Oberon sends Puck to find a certain bewitching herb: if the juice is dropped on a sleeper’s eyelids, he or she will fall in love with the next live creature they see. Next enter lovers Lysander and Hermia, forbidden by Athenian law to marry each other (she must wed Demetrius) and so are fleeing the city together. They leave as Oberon enters to observe a second Athenian couple, Demetrius (in love with Hermia) pursued by Helena (in love with Demetrius). As they move off Puck returns with the herb, and Oberon instructs him to seek out an Athenian (meaning Demetrius) and anoint his eyes so as to make him fall in love with Helena. Next, a group of Athenian workmen (the ‘Rustics’) enters, intent on casting a play they hope to perform before Duke Thesus, Most prominent among them is Bottom, cast as Pyramus in Pyramus and Thisbe. They agree to return later to rehearse. Puck mistakenly anoints Lysanders’ eyes, causing him to transfer his allegiance to Helena, while Oberon anoints Tytania’s.
Act 2. The Rustics rehearse. Bottom exits briefly, and Puck mischievously gives him an ass’s head. The Rustics flee in terror on seeing him, but Tytania – waking nearby – falls in love with him under the enchantment. Meanwhile, the four Athenians are hurled into violent discord, till Puck sends them to sleep.
Act 3. The Athenians wake up cured and Bottom too is eventually restored. The rustics perform Pyramus and Thisbe to the Theseus and Hippolyta on their wedding day. Oberon and Tytania make their peace, and finally bless Theseus and Hippolyta, and their house.
For information about performing forces and where to buy/hire a score please visit the publisher pages.