Op. 64 (1960)
Opera in three acts
Libretto adapted from Shakespeare’s play by Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears
Setting: A wood near Athens
Duration: 2 hours and 25 minutes
First performance: 11 June 1960, Jubilee Halll, Aldeburgh
Oberon (King of the Fairies): Counter-tenor
Tytania (Queen of the Fairies): Colaratura soprano
Puck: Acrobat/speaking role
Theseus (Duke of Athens): Bass
Hippolyta (Queen of the Amazons, betrothed to Theseus): Contralto
Lysander (in love with Hermia): Tenor
Demetrius (in love with Hermia): Baritone
Hermia (in love with Lysander): Mezzo-soprano
Helena (in love with Demetrius): Soprano
Bottom (a weaver): Bass-baritone
Quince (a carpenter): Bass
Snug (a joiner): Tenor
Snout (a tinker): Tenor
Starveling (a tailor): Baritone
Trebles or Sopranos
Chorus of Fairies
2 flutes (doubling piccolo)
Oboe (doubling cor anglais)
2 clarinets in A and B flat
Trumpet in D
2 percussion: triangle, cymbal, tambouring, gong, 2 woodblock, vibraphone, glockenspiel, xylophone, tamburo in F# alto, side drum, tenor drum, bass drum, timpani, 2 bells in G# and F#
Harpsichord (doubling celesta)
Strings (minimum 220.127.116.11.2)
Sopranino recorder, small cymbal, 2 woodblocks
Boosey & Hawkes
What’s it About?
Act 1. As twilight falls, fairies attendant upon their queen Tytania enter, followed by Puck, spirit attendant on the fairy-king, Oberon. Soon the royal pair arrives, separately, having fallen out over a little changeling boy. They argue, then Tytania and her fairies leave. Oberon sends Puck to find a certain bewitching herb: if the juice is dropped on a sleeper’s eyelids, he or she will fall in love with the next live creature they see. Next enter lovers Lysander and Hermia, forbidden by Athenian law to marry each other (she must wed Demetrius) and so are fleeing the city together. They leave as Oberon enters to observe a second Athenian couple, Demetrius (in love with Hermia) pursued by Helena (in love with Demetrius). As they move off Puck returns with the herb, and Oberon instructs him to seek out an Athenian (meaning Demetrius) and anoint his eyes so as to make him fall in love with Helena. Next, a group of Athenian workmen (the ‘Rustics’) enters, intent on casting a play they hope to perform before Duke Thesus, Most prominent among them is Bottom, cast as Pyramus in Pyramus and Thisbe. They agree to return later to rehearse. Puck mistakenly anoints Lysanders’ eyes, causing him to transfer his allegiance to Helena, while Oberon anoints Tytania’s.
Act 2. The Rustics rehearse. Bottom exits briefly, and Puck mischievously gives him an ass’s head. The Rustics flee in terror on seeing him, but Tytania – waking nearby – falls in love with him under the enchantment. Meanwhile, the four Athenians are hurled into violent discord, till Puck sends them to sleep.
Act 3. The Athenians wake up cured and Bottom too is eventually restored. The rustics perform Pyramus and Thisbe to the Theseus and Hippolyta on their wedding day. Oberon and Tytania make their peace, and finally bless Theseus and Hippolyta, and their house.
Did You Know?
1. Although he originally asked Myfanwy Piper (librettist of The Turn of the Screw) to work on this opera, in the end Britten and Pears cut Shakespeare’s play themselves, reducing the original 5 acts to 3 and losing about half of the text in total.
2. The opera was premiered at Aldeburgh’s Jubilee Hall during the Festival in 1960 to celebrate its refurbishment.
3. Britten and Pears only added one line, which was included to make sense of the plot after all the cuts: Lysander’s ‘compelling thee to marry with Demetrius’, delivered to Hermia.
4. It transferred to Covent Garden in 1961, in a production directed by John Gielgud.
5. Britten scholar Mervyn Cooke has observed that Britten and Pears cut the section where the two pairs of lovers get married: so they are dispatched ‘to bed’ at the end of the opera technically unwed.
Find out more
Our Work of the Week on the opera, featuring operatic bass Matthew Rose.
Barry Ferguson, ‘Moth’ in the original production, remembers his time in Aldeburgh.