16 June 2010
Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream
"FAREWELL TO GARSINGTON"
By: Julia Gasper.
If there has to be a last season of the Garsington Opera,
Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the ideal work
to celebrate everything unique and wonderful about this
much-loved Oxford festival. This was quintessential
For twenty-one years, the manor-house owned by the Ingrams
family has offered its particular blend of midsummer magic, a
magic in which the music, the house, the gardens and the
village have all played their part. It is the rare luxury of
opera performed on a small, intimate scale in an outdoor
setting where the stage world seems to merge with the
Elizabethan architecture and formal gardens with their
classical statues and topiary. It creates a fantasy, dream
world just perfect for Shakespeare’s comedy, with its mixture
of classical Greek myth and Elizabethan rural folklore. Set at
the height of summer, at night, and full of allusions to
flowers, birds, and insects, with fairies named Moth,
Peaseblossom and Mustardseed, the opera was a most felicitous
choice for the time and the place. Even the new moon played its
role on cue, appearing “like to a silver bow new-bent in
heaven”, in the words of Queen Hippolyta.
Garsington Opera has never shrunk from presenting innovative,
challenging and little-known repertoire. There are some people
for whom Benjamin Britten is still a composer with a harsh,
unknown “modern” idiom. Sitting in the rose garden in the
interval, I overheard a group of ladies, dining on champagne
and strawberries, lamenting that there was no “music” in this
opera. Music there certainly is, of a singular and whimsical
kind, orchestrated with Britten’s bold imagination and
sensitive colouring, music that ranges from the intellectual
delights of fugue to the downright comical. There are moments
when Britten’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s text seems
inspired. There are other moments when it seems tortuous or
unintelligible, but while many composers might create different
music for these incomparable words, none has created such a
stimulating sound-world. It is sometimes beautiful but never
predictable or cosy, and it is infused with the spirit of
The stage set by designer Francis O’Connor also horrified some
of the more conservative members of the audience, but I liked
it. A surrealistic vision of broken bedsteads, quilts,
children’s toys and a helter-skelter, it created on one level a
dream-like, surreal dimension and on another, metaphorical
level presented the idea of disorder, dislocation and
disturbance which is such an important theme of this story.
True lovers are wrenched apart, spouses quarrel, Nature is
turned upside-down when Titania falls in love with Bottom,
ass’s head and all.
We see the seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Fall in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery set. The spring, the summer,
The chiding autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries; and the mazèd world
By their increase, knows not which is which.
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension.
We are their parents and originals.
Clearly there is nothing new about the idea of climate change,
or the theory that we are responsible for it. Here is the very
same idea written by Shakespeare in 1595, describing real
events of the early 1590s in the English countryside.
I enjoyed the subtle jokes in this opera production, such as
the oversized Narnia wardrobe, a fine Victorian piece of
furniture, stuffed with fur coats, through which many of the
characters entered into what they did not realize was
fairy-land. It all added to the atmosphere of fantasy. Little
boys as fairies dressed in dirty old services uniforms were
certainly curious but succeeded in getting us as far away as
possible from the sentimental, Arthur Rackham style of fairy.
The boys of the Trinity choir swarmed over the stage, playful,
fresh-voiced and dirty-faced. The wonderful comedy of the play
of Pyramus and Thisby as put on by the Athenian workmen was
grand entertainment. Here is Britten’s music at its most
uncompromising and irreverent.
The end of Garsington Opera can never be a happy event, but it
is a triumphant one. The company is not winding up, but
planning to move to the Wormsley estate at Stokenchurch, near
High Wycombe, the home of the Getty family. If all goes well,
and they obtain both the planning permission and the necessary
funds, they will open there in summer 2011 with a fresh season
of opera. If you would like to help with the fund-raising
appeal, get in touch with either email@example.com