Review: Reviving old magic

Midsummer Night's Dream; Oberon, Barbican City of London Sinfonia
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Midsummer Night's Dream

Oberon

Barbican City of London Sinfonia

Halfway through Oberon, Carl Marla von Weber's opera-pantomime based on an idea from Shakespeare's A , I found myself wondering how many country couples really do let themselves in for a midsummer marriage. After all, the artistic precedents for disrupted nuptials are ominous (and as far as Weber was concerned, writing Oberon was more or less the death of him). Better, surely, the deep, deep bliss of the urban registry office.

Celebrating Shakespeare's work in a three-concert Barbican series, Richard Hickox and the City of London Sinfonia had offered, on Tuesday 17 March, the original play, semi-staged by RSC actors, with Mendelssohn's complete incidental music. The result was intriguing, and good enough to make you wonder how many fine 19th- century theatrical scores are lost to posterity through changing production styles. Interspersed among the much-loved set pieces - the Overture, Scherzo, Nocturne and Wedding March - were snippets of fine incidental music: a tiny fanfare for the fairies Moth and Cobweb; music for each of the spells; and a couple of seconds of orchestra for Puck's return with the "little western flower". Sometimes, as in "Ye Spotted Snakes", the connections with familiar Mendelssohnian types (in this case, the "Bee's Wedding" was clear).

But elsewhere there were surprises; for example, an austerely chromatic viola tune for Hermia's enchantment, and an acidly Mahlerian marchette for Thisby's death that caused raised eyebrows. Given the overall richness, what kind of opera would Mendelssohn have given the world had he set, instead, the complete text?

In Weber's case, the chance to do so was scuppered by one aptly named Planche, whose libretto, based on Oberon and Titania's marital strife, was geared to the needs of London's Regency theatre - which is about as low as it gets. Tovey described the text as the merest twaddle for regulating the operations of scene shifters. For last Thursday's revival, John Warrack had attempted to bring sense to the insensible by reducing the acres of empty pantomime redundant in the original.

A strong cast was led by soprano Christine Brewer as Reiz, powerful in "Ocean, thou mighty monster", with tenor Alan Woodrow's Huon good in parts. Timothy West delivered a magisterial narration that knew when to laugh at the absurdities even Warrack could not expunge from the script. These included magical transformations to no dramatic effect, and events connected by the merest casuistry to make a skein of plot redeemed only by music.

The score, indeed, was the star of the evening, a romantic pearl, and a reminder of Weber's prescience. That the bewitching "Scene with Mermaids", beautifully sung by Susan Gritton, was written in 1826, the year before Beethoven's death, and four years before the debut of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, was a quirk of history.

No less surprising was Weber's writing for woodwind, as deft and subtle as Mendelssohn's yet pre-dating his Shakespearean incidental music by some seventeen years.

Nicholas Williams

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