Weak and Idle Themes

[All links in this post are to Spotify.]

Some pieces of music are really good. They reach down inside you and touch you on a fundamental level, they fill your heart with joy or cleanse your mind with cathartic sorrow. Some works, on the other hand, are just bad. They're melodically dull, or harmonically uninspiring, or any of the other myriad things that can go wrong when putting notes on the page. (And I've suffered all these faults and more in my own writing. Music is hard.) But then there are the works that are almost really good. They have a lot going for them, they almost hit it out of the park, but there's just . . . something where they fundamentally miss the mark. 

And works in that last category are often the most excruciating of all.

There are a lot of good things in Michael Ching's operatic version of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The general conception is arresting from the get-go: The entire opera is done a cappella; there is no orchestra, only a choral ensemble to support the soloists. This is really cool, and Ching does some amazing things with it. When Demetrius gives a final round of scolding to Helena before ditching her in the forest, the ensemble, by echoing his earlier complaints against her, vividly steps into the drama, forfeiting the more "neutral" or "objective" stance commonly afforded to orchestral accompaniments to side viciously with Demetrius. As Titania drifts off to sleep before being enchanted by Oberon, the ensemble dissolves into murmuring nocturnal sounds, creating a powerful image of the scene at hand. There are any number of moments like these, and they provide a powerful argument for what could otherwise be a rather monotonous show.

Even aside from these special effects, the show is full of great moments. Lysander's explanation of his plan to flee Athens is at turns conspiratorial, warm, and loving, just as it should be. Puck's introductory aria is appropriately cheeky, and the lullaby for Titania touching. Helena's vow to pursue Demetrius despite his scorn is rousing without losing an undercurrent of restrained panic and despair (it's intercut with Demetrius, but starts for the first time about 38 seconds into this track). (It also doesn't include the "I am your spaniel" passage, which is a relief.) There are occasional mis-stresses and distorted lines, but on the whole, the text setting is deft and clear, without flagrant errors or obnoxious micky-mousing gimmicks. (I even like the "I know a bank" passage, which, given my fondness for the Britten version, is really saying something.)

It's when you start to zoom out from the little moments that the problems begin to appear. Given the length of Shakespeare's plays, cuts are inevitable when turning them into operas unless you're going for something that even Wagner would find excessive. This is all well and good, but the way the cuts are made in this adaptation puts a great deal of emphasis on the pairs of lovers, which is a risky move. The lovers in Midsummer, to be blunt, aren't very interesting, nor do they really do anything to advance the plot. This isn't a story about how love can, thru perseverance and other virtues and sacrifices, overcome any obstacle. It's about how four people get passively swept up in something completely beyond them and have their problems solved by people they never meet employing means they don't understand. Even the initial threat of the Athenian law that pushed them into the woods in the first place gets resolved with little fanfare: Theseus simply goes "You know how I said there was NO WAY I could POSSIBLY change the law? Yeah, jk. I'm an absolute monarch, I do what I want.". No impassioned speeches, no last-minute legal brilliance, just the head of the government casually changing everything on a whim. And this is the story that this adaptation is trying to put front and center.

Contrast this with the treatment of Bottom. Unlike the interchangeable lovers, Shakespeare's Bottom is infinitely memorable, and not only for his transformation at the hands of Puck. He bellows, he blusters, he has no self-awareness or restraint — his transformation is so fitting because he's already such an ass, even without the donkey ears. This adaptation cuts the vast bulk of this. Ching's Bottom doesn't try to play every part in their play, doesn't constantly wrestle with Quince for control of the group, doesn't — and this is, in many ways, the most egregious omission of all — get a "Bottom's Dream" aria. No, instead of this fantastic, unbeatable bit of synaesthetic doggerel ("the eye of man hath not heard . . . "), we get a ponderous setting of the "lovers and madmen" speech. Why is this here? Do we really need three entire minutes of half-baked philosophy at this point in the show?

This all comes to a head in the show-within-a-show in the final act, in a way that reveals the greatest weakness of this adaptation: It simply isn't willing to go completely over the top. This was already apparent in the climactic lovers' quarrel in the second act, which is treated with tedious seriousness — the numerous small pauses where Ching takes the time to stop one accompanimental groove and establish the next only serve to increase the sense of bloated drag — and it's why so many of Bottom's great moments were cut: Bottom is never anything other than over-the-top, and Ching's music simply doesn't seem able to handle that. The play-within-a-play makes this devastatingly obvious. The prologue is awkward but not butchered, Snug's introduction of the lion is strangely eloquent, the Man in the Moon gets into no quarrels with the audience — no one even comments that, with the help of a surgeon, Pyramus might well recover and prove an ass. The whole thing seems afraid of going too far, afraid of tastelessness, of becoming absurd.

But absurdity is precisely the point. The Mechanicals are inept. They have, let's face it, no idea what they're doing, and they screw a lot of things up. And yet it somehow works. Theatre is like that. It's messy, haphazard, sometimes gloriously tacky, and yet at the end of the day, it has the potential to be deeply, profoundly moving. Both Ching and Britten treat Thisbe's final aria as sincere, and I think this is the right choice. Yes, it's at the height of an absurd farce of a play, but that's theatre, that's life: At the peak of absurd insincerity, we can suddenly slip into transcendent emotional truth.

But it's only the rank absurdity that makes that slip possible. It's only by cranking all the knobs up to eleven, by living in that completely, unapologetically over-the-top space that we can walk the line between "a tragedy to those who feel" and "a comedy to those who think". Ching, for all his compositional dexterity, can't get us there; he's in too small a box, and his Midsummer falls flat as a result. His lovers really love, but his madmen aren't really mad.

No bergomask, I pray you, this play needs more excuse.