Monday, September 2, 2013

Considering a Scene as a Character

Once again I find myself involved with a major listening project. This time it is the Decca collection of the complete works of Benjamin Britten. This is structured according to categories, rather than ordered chronologically. This works for me, because it will allow me to deal with each category as a separate article.

The first category in the set is opera; and I have to take satisfaction in having acquired enough experience that each of the operas is familiar to me through at least one staged production, through video when not through experience in an opera house. Every now and then, however, there are certain dramatic elements that are better recognized through the music without visual distraction. This is the way I feel about A Midsummer Night's Dream, which lends itself to imaginative visual design while having to bear the burden of familiarity with William Shakespeare at the same time.

What fascinates me about Britten's opera is how the composer chose to make it his own narrative without ever compromising Shakespeare in any serious way. This is apparent from the very beginning, since the very first music you hear establishes the scene (to use Kenneth Burke's technical term) of the forest in which all acts (from the same Burke terminology) of significance will take place. Indeed, to prepare the audience for Puck's epilogue, it is clear that Britten has chosen to establish the forest as a "dream world" of sorts, rather than merely an untamed piece of land on the outskirts of Athens. One might almost say that, from a musical point of view, the forest matters more to Britten than all those agents (Burke's term again), both supernatural and "natural" that will be bumping into each other (often in comic ways) as the narrative unfolds.

Clearly, the forest does not itself act; but perhaps Britten is trying to prepare the audience for how the scene will create a variety of dispositions through which the acts themselves will be motivated. This strikes me as significant, particularly since the opera never leaves the forest until the final scene of the final act. (The text for that scene actually begins with the very first words of Shakespeare's play.) In other words one only returns to "reality" for the multiple wedding celebration (in which Oberon and Titania are somewhat like "participating bystanders"). Furthermore (notwithstanding the influence of Felix Mendelssohn), that scene has less to do with the wedding and spends most of its time on the "Pyramus and Thisbe" performance, which, since it is the (highly distorted) enactment of a familiar myth, involves yet another move into yet another "dream world."

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