BRITTEN A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Only 300 people could fit into Aldeburgh’s tiny Jubilee Hall for the premiere of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1960. Thanks to the BBC’s live radio broadcast and Testament’s excellent remastering of it, we can now join them. Decca’s commercial recording has been the standard for the opera since it was released in 1966, and most listeners will prefer it for its fine studio sound and the absence of audience noise, but the opportunity to listen in to the premiere is an experience no Britten lover will want to miss.
In the first place this is an earlier version of the score, hot from the composer’s writing desk. The differences may be small – Snug has a swaggering song as the Lion in ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ and there are changes in key and accompaniment elsewhere – but it is good to have Britten’s first thoughts in performance. Secondly, we get to hear the original cast, which involves some significant Britten collaborators who did not make it on to the Decca recording. Prime among these is Jennifer Vyvyan, the Governess in Decca’s The Turn of the Screw, who makes a Tytania of pinpoint subtlety. Of the lovers, three – April Cantelo’s Helena, Marjorie Thomas’s Hermia and George Maran’s gently sung Lysander – are new, and a well-balanced quartet they make. Leonide Massine II is a Puck of otherworldly, pensive tone; and Peter Pears is heard in the role of Flute rather than Lysander as on the Decca recording (Hugues Cuénod, originally intended as Flute, had not been free to take part). This means that Pears also has to come on in female dress as Thisbe, a moment that is greeted with hilarity among the audience. A tolerable amount of stage and audience noise is present throughout.
With the exception of a wayward band of fairies – the boys manage to get lost in the first five minutes – the cast play as an ensemble with remarkable detail. Alfred Deller, especially, is in excellent voice as Oberon, risking softer singing than would be possible anywhere else. In the intimate Jubilee Hall the English Opera Group Orchestra’s small band of 27 players cast a spell of almost chamber-like fantasy. Some prominent instrumentalists of the day were in its ranks and, though the playing is not immaculate, Britten leads his forces with tremendous rhythmic verve – even more than on the Decca recording. I hope the lucky 300 knew what they were witnessing.