Marking the 400th anniversary of the bard’s death, last night the BSO offered music inspired by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Andris Nelsons presided over the familiar—Mendelssohn’s Overture and Incidental Music (thereto), Weber’s Oberon Overture, and the newer—Henze’s Symphony No. 8—in a combination concert and performance art event.
Oberon is remembered mostly for its overture. Written at the end of the composer’s short life and based on Wieland’s epic inspired by the famous play, the opera balances mortals and fairies and the overture, built upon snippets from the larger work, likewise straddles two worlds. From fleet to regally ponderous, this score captures the paradox of being a king (regal) and a fairy (light, verging on nebulous, as well as ominous). Despite the use of reduced strings Nelsons and the BSO sounded uniformly heavy throughout. That Germanic reading befitted the composer perhaps more than the brilliantly Italianate character the music achieves.
Commissioned by the BSO’s New Works Fund, Hans Werner Henze’s Symphony No. 8 premiered in Symphony Hall on October 1st 1993 with Seiji Ozawa conducting and the composer in the audience. Henze is known for combining twelve-tone harmonies in classical forms with an overarching sense of singing (“quite simply, the manifestation of life,” he famously pronounced). This three-movement symphony takes inspiration from scenes and the general atmosphere of Midsummer. The opening Allegro moderato oscillates interestingly and colorfully before becoming a perpetuum mobile, destabilized and destabilizing, with melodic lines appearing as rays of light through the busy chiaroscuro, especially at movement’s end. The middle, Ballabile: Allegremento con comodo, con tenerezza–Aria: Tempo II un pochino meno mosso- Canzonetta, puts listeners in the middle of an urban scene reflective of modern life. At times we hear swing from a neighborhood juke joint, then we lumber away, low brass leading the way. The Aria recalls the indulgent glamor of urbanity now linked to long-gone and lately much lamented airline, Pan Am. The Canzonetta evokes Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphoses with its perpetual agitation but without that composer’s crunchy lyricism. The Adagio finale opens midstream in Wagner’s Rhine but what glitters is not gold. Sadness subsumes this Lorelei. The symphony ends quietly, a dream fading away. Scored for large ensemble, the piece challenges all parts individually and the ensemble as a whole; seated on the floor, I could not hear all lines even as I saw hands flying over instruments. What remains is a series of impressions, episodic, disjointed, and only loosely cohering into a symphony. This symphony overflows with influences, and some intriguing orchestration, though the connection to Shakespeare appears tenuous.
After the intermission, the concert seemingly ended and the performance art began. For the Mendelssohn, the Boston Symphony Orchestra became an on-stage pit ensemble, pushed behind the actors, the women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus crowding in upstage. A screen downstage obscured the organ and allowed images to be projected above the heads of the performers. Before the music began, Carson Elrod took the stage as Mendelssohn, and with nib pen scratched out (we heard that through the speakers) a note to his sister Fanny (drawing of her projected, along with cover of the Overture score) about King Fredrick commissioning incidental music for the play. As the Overture began, we continued to see the same images of score cover, drawings of Felix and Fanny, and Elrod perused the score, nodding along with the music. Antonio Weissinger as a Young Mendelssohn sat on a bed downstage right, playing chess against himself. Oberon (Will Lyman) and Titania (Karen MacDonald) entered and exited mostly through the orchestra, with Oberon (notably) appearing in the hall a couple times. Let me dispatch the music portion of this review: Soprano Amanda Forsythe took an excellent turn in the Song, her voice light and supple as befit the music. Mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer sang more darkly. As singers and actors were all miked; balance and projection were fine.
Bill Barclay, Stage Director and Adaptor, with help from Kathleen Doyle, Costume Designer, Cristina Todesco, Set Designer, and Hillary Leben, Video Artist conceived this vision. Barclay, a Weston, Mass., native is Director of Music at Shakespeare’s Globe in London. I would like to see how he realizes productions there. Here we noted unresolved tension between music and words. At times, the orchestra played. At times phrases of music were held until after some lines. At times actors spoke over the music. As I understand it, Mendelssohn’s music was more used as he wrote it, during the play, and not excerpted in phrasal units. Last night took more liberties, including making Mendelssohn a character—two, actually—in the stage business. Actors doubled characters confusingly: Mendelssohn was Puck and Bottom, Wall and Moonlight and Pyramus, Peter Quince and Robin Goodfellow; Young Mendelssohn was Puck and Thisbe; only Oberon and Titania remained always one character. Most of the words were taken from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but not all; at one point Mendelssohn spoke as though he were a Shakespearean character and the effect was of a 20-something of today whining in the wrong period language. (I am sure Joss Whedon could have made it work effectively.) A text (presumably written by Barclay?) added another layer of confusion. Elrod and Weissinger were standout actors, especially in the over-acted Pyramus and Thisbe show put on by the Rustics). As for the video, when it was not projecting images of Mendelssohn’s scores or drawings, it featured generic scenes of nature. Oberon concluded the show by holding aloft an LED tea candle, representing a sprite; those in the audience provided with same lighted theirs and held them aloft throughout the hall. Interesting idea, perhaps, but coming so late in the show it was a distracting surprise. On the whole, I witnessed a messy and anachronistic jumble.
To be clear: I am not opposed to multimedia performances where acting, music, stagecraft and video art, share the spotlight, yet I hold no truck with cack-handed extravaganzas. There must be an underlying cohesion to the spectacle, not a surfeit of competing, disparate elements. A noted Shakespeare scholar and impresario of historically informed productions of the Bard’s works, described those original events as a gathering of the greatest actors and musicians in the land, combining forces to to create fabulous entertainment. Last night we witnessed a pale imitation.