“Take pains. Be perfect.” We can just hear Maestro JoAnn Falletta saying those very words of Shakespeare to her Buffalo Philharmonic as they are about to embark on a three-day magically mysterious tour into the world of fantasy, spells, fairies, sprites, madness, and above all else, love. “Lovers and madmen have such seething brains / Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend / More than cool reason ever comprehends.” We are about to enter the realm of Shakespeare’s comedy A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM made more glorious by the music of Mendelssohn. Although not so much today, in his day, Mendelssohn was quite famous as a choral composer, and you’ll have a rare opportunity to enjoy that too as, along with the BPO, The Women’s Choir of Buffalo, Kathleen Bassett, Conductor, will perform as part of the production.
We are about to enter the realm of Shakespeare’s comedy A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM made more glorious by the music of Mendelssohn.
You’ve probably seen at least one performance of Shakespeare’s A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM before. I recall a particularly charming production at The New Phoenix Theatre five years ago.
It’s probably his most often performed play and that’s because it is, as they say, “accessible,” meaning that it’s easy to understand and full of characters with pretty clear motivations, even when deluded by fairy dust in their eyes! And who hasn’t personally discovered, as the lover Lysander says to his heart-throb Hermia “The course of true love never did run smooth.” As dream-like as the play is, it has remained surprisingly contemporary over the centuries.
So, if you’ve ever wondered in the bleak mid-winter “Come now, what masques, what dances shall we have / To wear away this long age of three hours / between our after-supper and bedtime?” get thee to the music hall. But when? Next Friday and Saturday, January 17 and 18 at 8:00 p.m., with the third and final performance Sunday, January 19 at 2:30, all performances at Kleinhans Music Hall. Tickets are available at the door (the hall has 2,441 seats) and there is a wide variety of price levels; all are good seats. As one article reads: “The shape of the hall is such that audience members in the back rows of the balcony will have as clear and instantaneous of an auditory experience as the people in the front rows of the ground level.” Call the BPO box office at (716) 885-5000 or visit www.bpo.com and score the seats that work for you.
So what is all this? JoAnn Falletta, with well over 100 CD recordings in her discography, now celebrating 20 years as the BPO’s Music Director, with a contract for 5 more, will be on the podium to conduct music by Mendelssohn in between the acts and scenes of the play by Shakespeare. Playing Oberon, the King of the Fairies, will be Irish Classical’s Vincent O’Neill, who co-founded the ICTC 30 years ago and is currently wrapping up his tenure at Artistic Director. Falletta and O’Neill are not the only heavy hitters, though. O’Neill will be joined by local phenom, two-time Artie Award (Leading Actress) winning Aleks Malesj as Queen Titania, and the comic Brendan Didio will be Puck, all directed by the ICTC’s Fortunato Pezzimenti.
It’s not the first such collaboration. ICTC has participated in a re-telling of “Peter and the Wolf” with the BPO and, for grown-ups, about five years ago, the ICTC put on Molière’s comedy LE BOURGEOIS GENTILHOMME with music by Richard Strauss. And it’s certainly not the first time the BPO has ventured into mixed art forms. They’ve accompanied many movies, playing the music to, most recently, HOME ALONE, while the movie played on a big screen above. One memorable evening had them playing to CITY LIGHTS with music by Charlie Chaplin and before that Eisenstein’s ALEXANDER NEVSKY with the gorgeous music of Prokofiev. And they even put on the Bartok opera BLUEBEARD’S CASTLE with sets by glass sculptor Dale Chihuly. Playing Mendelssohn’s music during Shakespeare’s play? Definitely in their wheel-house.
Is this one of those really complicated Shakespeare plots? No. Basically, Shakespeare has three sets of lovers who must undergo trials and tribulations for four acts before the famous Wedding March is played, leading into the concluding Act 5 triple wedding. The first pair of lovers are Theseus, the Duke of Athens who is about to marry to Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons. Meanwhile, young Hermia has been told by her father that, for political reasons, she has to marry Demetrius, who is a bit of a dud. But Hermia (“Though she be but little, she is fierce!”) is in love with Lysander and Lysander loves Hermia and they are not to be denied. Good news, by the end of the play Helena, who never gave up on Demetrius even though he seemed to dump her for Hermia, will have her boyfriend back. And she has her friendship with Hermia, too. “Is all the counsel that we two have shared, / The sisters’ vows, the hours that we have spent, / When we have chid the hasty-footed time / For parting us, —O, is it all forgot?” No, it is not. Despite some toxic masculinity displayed by some of the men, and despite the emphasis on marriage, Shakespeare, if you don’t know, was writing roles for strong independent women 400 years ago. It’s one of the many reasons we’re still watching A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM today. (Or, at least January 17th through the 19th). (And this summer. See below.)
Meanwhile, into the woods we go, where most of the shenanigans shake out. Oberon, King of the Fairies, is mad at his wife Titania, Queen of the Fairies, because she won’t give him her ward, the “Indian changeling” to be his henchman. So, Oberon summons his “fixer” – a fairy named “Puck” who is full of tricks and magic – to make Titania fall in love with an animal, so that in her shame, she will accede to Oberon’s demands. In fact, it’s not an animal, but the foolish character Bottom who now, through magic, has the head of an ass. “What angel wakes me from my flowery bed?” she says upon seeing this creature. Oh my. It’s going to be one long night of mistaken identities and changing allegiances.
And, then there’s the concluding “play within a play,” which, if done right, is actually pretty funny as we follow the local tradesmen, known as “mechanicals,” planning, rehearsing, and then performing the tale of the fated lovers Pyramus and Thisbee to present at the wedding of Theseus and Hyppolita. Did I mention that it ends with a triple wedding?
The stellar cast also includes Chris Kelly as Egeus; Phil Farugia as Bottom; other ICTC favorites and the young lovers, Kit Keubler (Helena); Kalya Storto (Hermia); David Wysocki (Lysander) and Nick Stevens (Demetriius) will be making their BPO/ICTC debuts.
The boy genius, Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) read the play (in German) with his beloved older sister Fanny and when he was around 18 years old was inspired to compose his famous “Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
As you sit in Kleinhans, that music will begin the evening. Mendelssohn waited almost 16 years to complete what is known as the “incidental music” to accompany the rest of the play, and you’ll have to wait until the end of Act I to hear more of the score. In fact, the music is mostly between the acts until the end. But what music! In addition to the famous overture, there’s the light, zippy scherzo
descriptive of fairies darting throughout the woods at night, and the famous Wedding March,
rivaled in popularity only by Wagner’s Wedding March
from his opera LOHENGRIN.
Speaking of Wagner, the great German egomaniacal composer disparaged the music of fellow German composer Mendelssohn, most likely because he felt threatened by Mendelssohn’s genius. Wagner was afraid that his personal career would never take off in the shadow of Mendelssohn’s genius. Casting about for an ideological weapon, Wagner ultimately attacked Mendelssohn as a lightweight and a relic of the past, invoking anti-Semitism in a piece titled “Jewishness in Music“. Wagner may have set the stage for discounting Mendelssohn’s genius, but as described by Tom Service writing for The Guardian, George Bernard Shaw didn’t help either. In 1898, he accused Mendelssohn of “despicable oratorio-mongering”; for all his fame, he said, he “was not in the foremost rank of great composers”. The bottom line is that most people today have the utmost respect for and can rattle off the names of the Germans Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, and though everyone love’s the music of Mendelssohn, is he on your “Top Ten” list? Come on people, let’s move beyond that.
Still, in whatever esteem you hold Mendelssohn, you’ll probably love his music even more after this weekend: Friday and Saturday, January 17 and 18 at 8:00 p.m., with the third and final performance Sunday, January 19 at 2:30, all performances at Kleinhans Music Hall. Tickets are available at the door or call the BPO box office at (716) 885-5000 or visit www.bpo.com.
Remember I said that this is probably Shakespeare’s most often performed play? Right on cue, Shakespeare in Delaware Park will offer A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, directed by Saul Elkin, running July 23 through August 16, 2020 on “Shakespeare Hill” in Delaware Park near the Rose Garden and Marcy Casino. It will be SIDP’s second offering this coming summer, after AS YOU LIKE IT (June 18 – July 12, 2020) directed by Steve Vaughan.
Lead image: L-R Didio, O’Neill credit Gene Witkowski