Major Operas | A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Benjamin Britten | Modern Era

With only a limited time to create an opera for the opening performance at the Aldeburgh Festival on 11 June 1960, Britten and Pears selected Shakespeare’s comic play, and by shortening and tightening it they were able to employ Shakespeare’s own text rather than rewriting it.

The music, meanwhile, transforms the stage into the woods, and every nuance of the outdoors is beautifully captured in Britten’s orchestral composition.

The success of action and score stems from the highly organized formal scheme, as well as the brilliance of his writing for the natural and supernatural. Both Tytania’s florid vocalizations and Oberon’s counter-tenor give them an otherworldly quality, while the casting of an acrobat in the speaking role of Puck further enhances the variety of characters. However, the highlight is the move to the court of Theseus and we see the play-within-the-play as a highly structured operatic gem within the larger work.

Composed: 1959–60
Premiered: 1960, Aldeburgh
Libretto by the composer and Peter Pears, after William Shakespeare’s play

Act I

Oberon and Tytania, King and Queen of the Fairies, are quarrelling. Oberon orders Puck, his sprite, to find a flower with juice that makes everyone fall in love with the first creature they see on waking. Hermia is to marry Demetrius, but she loves Lysander. They plan to elope and swear fidelity. Oberon encounters Demetrius, who is searching for the others and is himself pursued by Helena. Puck returns with the flower. Some of the juice is for Tytania, but Puck is told to drop some into the eyes of Demetrius, whom he will recognize by his ‘Athenian garments’. Six working men arrive to rehearse Peter Quince’s play about Pyramus and Thisbe. Bottom, a weaver, wants to play every part. They leave to learn their lines.

Puck discovers Hermia and Lysander sleeping and anoints his eyes. Demetrius escapes from Helena. She wakes Lysander, who immediately declares his passion for her. Helena runs away, pursued by Lysander. Hermia finds she is alone and sets off to find Lysander. Tytania’s fairies sing her to sleep. Oberon squeezes juice in her eyes.

Act II

The play’s rehearsal is not going easily. Puck puts an ass’s head on Bottom and the others flee in terror. Tytania is woken by his braying song. She is rapturously in love and orders her fairies to do whatever he wishes. They fall asleep together. Oberon discovers that Puck has found the wrong Athenian. This time Demetrius is anointed, but he also wakes to see Helena. Soon both men are fighting over her while Helena and Hermia quarrel violently. Puck leads them a merry dance until they fall asleep. He ensures that Lysander will wake seeing Hermia.


Next morning Oberon wakes Tytania, who is horrified to see that her dream of loving an ass was real. They are reconciled and prepare to bless Duke Theseus’s wedding to Hippolyta. Puck removes the ass’s head from Bottom. The lovers have also had strange dreams. The last to wake is...

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