Shakespeare/Mendelssohn • Ein Sommernachtstraum
Inspiration for Wagner
All pictures above and below courtesy Salzburg Festival, © Ruth Walz. Details - click image to see entire photo.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is perhaps—probably—Shakespeare’s funniest comedy and raunchiest play, but apparently young Felix Mendelssohn-B. only got the bowdlerized version to read, or in any case one prepared ad usum Delphini… because there’s very little showing of the raucous humor in his music to the play, and even less of the naughtiness. It is, however, terribly terribly beautiful music, and sitting on a loft-like platform far above the stage, the Mozarteum Orchestra under Ivor Bolton played the whole incidental music (with the bits for—splendidly performing—women’s chorus) amiably.
The relative prominence of the music was the reason I attended my first-ever theater performance* at the Salzburg Festival. The relative prominence of the music was also the reason why Henry Mason’s direction (set and costumes by Jan Meier) got away unscathed, despite amounting to little more than bawdy, superficial hokum. And yet the music, floating down from above, seemed rather like an afterthought… pleasant, fleeting, and forgettable. Mason’s heavy-handed way with the Midsummer Night’s Dream was and shall be less forgettable: a traditional hamming-up, with lots of fairies in drag (always good for the predictable, if cheap laugh), several un-dragged fairies, and actors that were not so much made to act but simply read their lines.
The discrepancy was particularly noticeable after seeing the Michael Thalheimer production of Midsummer Night’s Dream at Munich’s Residenztheater—which one could well like or not (I did, after taking a few minutes to get into its ostentatiously flippant way), but which one cannot suggest wasn’t thoroughly directed, with a specific concept in mind and that concept systematically followed through. Thalheimer made me scurry back to Shakespeare’s text, to find upon re-reading how close to the spirit, but also the letter, he actually was. Mason would only have reconfirmed mildly pleasant stereotypes I had about the play to begin with. Within the limits of the rôles they had to play, Markus Meyer (Robin Goodfellow), and Paul Herwig (Nick Bottom) made the evening worthwhile. Especially Herwig, whose comic-style hasn’t changed the least bit since I saw him in The Black Rider more than a decade ago (the ingenious Burroughs-Waits-Wilson musical as staged for the Residenztheater by Andreas Kriegenburg) had a way with his grateful character that, however predictably, was high on tragic-comic hilarity. Michael Rotschopf convinced as Oberon, but his Theseus was an unintentionally smarmy prat.
If the production had offered English subtitles (which admittedly doesn’t make sense for every play), the affair might have proved a greater draw to international viewers which are, for obvious reasons, not yet much tapped into by the theater-side of the Salzburg Festival. The whole thing was reasonably entertaining, yes, but just one nose-wiggle or two away from disappointment. Still, it set the scene nicely for Wagner’s Midsummer Night’s Dream-based Meistersinger a few days later.
(* Not counting the Young Directors’ Projects, which can be very interesting, as they teeter on the edge of what defines the theater of the future, or at least certain aspects thereof.)