A Midsummer Night's Dream

Music by Felix Mendelssohn; based on the play by William Shakespeare.

Title Reviewed

This is a review of a recording made by Opus Arte of the ballet A Midsummer Night's Dream choreographed in 1962 by George Balanchine and performed by the Pacific Northwest Ballet with the BBC Concert Orchestra. The show was shot in high-definition video at the Sadler's Wells Theatre in London in February 1999, and it will be called here the "Balanchine 1999 Midsummer Night's Dream.'' Opus Arte first published their recording (on June 1, 2001) in DVD format (catalog number: OA 0966 D). But this is a review of the same recording published (on October 1, 2007) by Opus Arte in HD DVD (catalog number: OA HD5003 D) and later (on February 1, 2008) in Blu-ray (catalog number: OA BD7003D). This was the first Blu-ray fine-art title ever published.

     Cast and Credits 

    Titania: Patricia Barker
    Oberon: Paul Gibson
    Puck: Seth Belliston
    Helena: Lisa Apple
    Hermia: Julie Tobiason
    Lysander: Ross Yearsley
    Demetrius: Jeffrey Stanton
    Hippolyta: Ariana Lallone
    Theseus: Batkhurel Bold
    Butterfly: Kaori Nakamura
    Titania's Cavalier: Charles Newton
    Bottom: Timothy Lynch
    Divertissement Pas de Deux: Louise Nadeau and Olivier Wevers

    Choreographer: George Balanchine
    Conductor--BBC Concert Orchestra: Stewart Kershaw
    Leader: Cynthia Fleming
    Soprano: Libby Crabtree
    Mezzo-soprano: Judith Harris
    Artistic Directors: Kent Stowell and Francia Russell
    Set and Costume Designer: Martin Pakledinaz
    Lighting: Randall G. Chiarelli
    Production and Stage Director: Francia Russell
    Assistant Production and Stage Directors: Otto Neubert and Anne Dabrowski

    Story as Told by Shakespeare

    Among the most popular theater plays is Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, a comedy of romantic love. It's a fantastic conglomerate of interlocking plots with three human couples and the king and queen of the fairies, all garnished with a play within the play about yet another set of lovers from mythology, Pyramus and Thisbe (the original Romeo and Juliet). Such an intricate and complicated work is challenging enough as a play. It would not remotely be possible to portray it in dance and mime. So it is not surprising to learn from Balanchine himself that his main inspiration for the ballet was Mendelssohn's music, not the play.

    Still, Balanchine took most of important characters in the ballet right out of the play. The story of lovers working out their problems, having a mass wedding, and throwing a party allowed him to create a part for every dancer in the company from age 4 to 40. Balanchine believed that someone seeing the ballet didn't need to know anything about the play. But I think the characters and their stories would seem pretty strange to anyone who doesn't recognize them from the play. So, for those of you who have never read Shakespeare's play or have not read it the last few days, here a brief refresher course.

    The play is set in ancient Athens, and ancient Athens is set in a county region of England in 1594. Duke Theseus, the hero of mythical Athens, and Hippolyta, the queen of the Amazons, plan to marry in a few days and are looking forward to the entertainment that will follow.

    Outside the city there dwells another set of monarchs: the tiny king and queen of the fairies with their retinues of fluttery and creepy creatures. Alas, the fairy king, with the portentous name of Oberon, and his queen, with the ironic name Titania, are feuding (over the possession of an exotic young Indian boy). Oberon's favorite courtier is Puck, the little daemon of tricks, pranks, mishaps, and mistakes.

    Next we meet two sets of young lovers: Hermia and Lysander and Helena and Demetrius. Alas, Demetrius has tired of Helena and become enamored of Hermia. This upsets everybody. The obvious solution is for Demetrius to return to Helena.

    Finally, there is an completely different and unrelated set of characters: a band of workmen of Athens (the "rude mechanicals'') who, under the direction of Bottom (Shakespeare's upside-down inside-out alter ego), hope to make some money by presenting a play for the Duke and his new bride at the wedding party.

    In his first four acts, Shakespeare contrives to send the human lovers into the same patch of the forest where the fairies live. Also, the rude mechanicals sneak away to the same place to practice their play. Oberon wants to play a trick on Titania. He also feels sorry for lonely Helena and wants to help her. He orders Puck to fetch a magic flower. When this flower is waved in the face of one asleep, then on wakening that person will fall madly in love with the first being he or she sees.

    All this traffic at one small intersection leads to series of chain collisions.

    • Oberon bewitches Titania with the magic flower. In the meantime Puck puts the head of an donkey on Bottom. When Bottom approaches the sleeping Titania, "[then] in that moment, so it came to pass / Titania waked and straightway loved an ass.'' This is the most famous scene from the play, (and it shows up on as the main artwork on the Opus Arte disc packages).
    • When I read the play, I have to draw a story board or make a Gantt chart to follow all the confusion caused by Puck among the young lovers stumbling around the forest. Let's just say that it is, measure for measure, as you like it--a comedy of errors concerning love's labour's lost and much ado about nothing. By the end of Act IV, all's well that ends well.

    In Act V, the scene shifts to the party after the wedding of all the human couples. The rude mechanicals, in an hilarious scene, attempt to give their play and drive the exasperated Duke and his bride to bed.

    Story as Told by Balanchine in Opus Arte Disc Chapters

    Balanchine tells his story in two acts. He collapses all of Shakespeare's first four acts into Act 1 of the ballet, and this comprises Chapters 1 thru 11 on the Opus Arte disc. Act II of the ballet is completely new. Balanchine replaces Shakespeare's play within the play with dancing at the wedding party, and this comprises Chapters 12 thru 17 on the disc.

    Here's a description of the Balanchine story as recorded, chapter-by-chapter, on the Opus Arte disc:

    1. Overture
      • Following titles, the show opens with the entrance of Oberon's retinue--children as bugs, 5 young women as butterflies, and Puck
      • Helena, in red, enters and exits, lamenting that Demetrius has dumped her
      • Oberon enters as does Titania with her retinue of fairies and an Indian boy. They argue over possession of the boy
      • The rude mechanicals enter briefly, drinking
      • The Duke enters
      • The lovers appear before the Duke
        • Lysander and Hermia, both in blue, are blissfully happy
        • Demetrius, in red, rebukes Helena, because he now loves Hermia
      • The bugs try to cheer up Helena, and then fold into a pile to sleep
    2. Titania's Bower
      • Titania, her consort, and 12 fairies dance
      • Puck attempts to kidnap the Indian boy but the fairies drive him off with switches
    3. Oberon's Kingdom--Oberon, the bugs, and the butterflies dance
    4. Journey Around the World
      • Oberon calls Puck on his seashell horn
      • Oberon orders Puck to find and fetch the magic flower
    5. The Lovers now enter before Oberon, who is holding the magic flower
      • Lysander and Hermia cuddle and smooch
      • Helena pursues the irritated and petulant Demetrius
      • Demetrius pursues an alarmed Hermia
      • Oberon orders Puck to use the magic flower to make Demetrius love Helena. Instead, Puck gets mixed up and makes Lysander love Helena
      • Now both men love the wrong girl and both girls are distraught (Lysander loves Helena and Demetrius loves Hermia)
      • Oberon and Puck recognize Puck's mistake
      • Puck tries to start straightening things out by making, at last, Demetrius love Helena again. But now both men love Helena and Hermia is left out in the cold
      • Lysander, still in love with Helena, pulls his dagger and stalks Demetrius
    6. The Fairies' Song--Back in her bower, Titania, attended by the 12 fairies, retires to sleep
    7. Hermia's Variation-- Poor Hermia is now the crying girl. Alone, she wanders the forest looking for Lysander (who is out somewhere chasing Helena)
    8. The Mechanicals--The rude ones enter to practice their play
    9. Puck & Bottom--Puck puts the mechanicals to sleep and slaps the head of an ass on Bottom
    10. Nocturne
      • Oberon uses the magic flower to play a trick on Titania
      • Titania wakes, sees Bottom, and falls in love with an ass
      • Titania and Bottom dance the famous counter-pas de deux, wherein Titania wants ass and ass wants grass
    11. In the Forest (End of Act 1)
      • Hippolyta finally enters and does a war dance with her hounds of war 
      • Lysander and Demetrius battle in the stage fog of war with Puck mixing it up
      • The lovers, all exhausted, fall sleep. Puck finally gets things right by making Lysander love Hermia again
      • Titania and Bottom arrive and Titania sleeps again
      • Oberon, tired of the joke, applies a magic antidote to Titania
      • Titania awakes and runs off Bottom
      • Puck takes the ass-head off Bottom and the mechanicals flee the forest for the safety of town
      • Titania yields the Indian boy to Oberon
      • Theseus and Hippolyta return. Theseus proposes marriage to Hippolyta and asks the two couples of now happy lovers to join him in a mass wedding
    12. Beginning of Act 2. At the Court of Theseus--there is a grand wedding march with the three couples and masses of retainers
    13. Divertissement-- the newly-weds are entertained by 6 couples in orange and a lead couple in aqua, blue, gray, and cream
    14. Divertissement Pas de Deux-- the lead couple celebrates the triumph of true love
    15. Finale--all the dancers return
    16. Epilogue
      • Night falls and the revelers at court are joined by Oberon and Titania with their retinues
      • The royals retire. The bugs twinkle in the fields. Puck and the butterflies close the show with a final call to their comrades in the summer night
    17. Curtain calls and credits

    Character of the Balanchine 1999 Midsummer Night's Dream

    This is not a superstar vehicle. It's an ensemble piece that gives great opportunity for many dancers in a company including students at various levels of experience.

    There are 14 important roles (the 12 named characters in Act 1 and the two unnamed characters who dance the Divertissement Pas de Deux in Act 2). In addition, by my count this production had in Act 1 no fewer than 66 roles for butterflies, pages, courtiers, bugs, fairies, rustics, and hounds. In Act 2, I counted 46 lesser roles. Of course there will be instances where the same dancer will get several parts, but this productions could involve as many as, say, 126 performers. All these folks, plus a battalion of parents and guardians of minors, flew to England to make this recording. It must have been a memorable event in the careers of everyone involved.

    This is such a blithe show--it would be churlish to let heard a discouraging word. Patricia Baker is gloriously unattainable as Titania, Paul Gibson is suavely mysterious as Oberon, and Seth Belliston as Puck is the original hyper-active child. (Apparently Belliston also played Oberon with great distinction on other nights in this same production.) Lisa Apple, Julie Tobiason, Ross Yearsley and Jeffrey Stanton display lithe athleticism and comic chops as the whip-sawn lovers. Ariana Lallone as Hippolyta, resplendent in gold and black, performs her spectacular role with fierce elan. Batkhurel Bold looks a bit young to be the groom of a warrior queen, but he gamely handles his circumstance with pomp. Kaori Nakamura is so cute as Butterfly--is she 14 or 34? Charles Newton is elegant as Titania's Cavalier. And finally Timothy Lynch, with maybe the hardest role of all for a ballet dancer, manages to be charmingly clumsy as Bottom.

    Act II opens with the Mendelssohn's Wedding March, probably the second most popular piece of wedding music today in the West. (Number 1 is, of course, Wagner's "Here Comes the Bride!'' from the opera Lohengrin.) After the march in, many dancers perform a series of figures comprising a Divertissement. This is all done in a grand, sumptuous style befitting the occasion.

    Now Shakespeare's theater play is more a celebration than a drama. Many aspects of romantic love are taken up and all problems are resolved. There is no great fall (as in a tragedy) or triumph (as in a history play). There is no climax in the play. But Balanchine manages in his ballet to go beyond the theater play and provide a climax.

    I refer now, of course, to Balanchine's Divertissement Pas de Deux in Act 2. This ethereal number, performed by nameless characters dancing in the abstract, totals up in greater sum all that has gone before. The cavalier shows his lady the greatest possible gentleness and respect in his supporting role. The lady suppresses beams of joy for a while to sustain the thrill of anticipation. Together they perform, with flawless grace and purity, figure on figure of mutual trust, admiration. and cooperation--until, after long enough, her passion and delight bursts out and her cavalier, protecting and shielding, accepts her surrender. If anyone would be named as the stars of Balanchine 1999 Midsummer Night's Dream, then in my view, they would be Louise Nadeau and Olivier Wevers in their rendition of this Divertissement Pas de Deux.

    The Opus Arte package sports lovely cover art, and the included booklet is elegantly done with gracious notes from Jeanie Thomas. But I do have one problem with the art work: every time I see the main menu, the art work there gets me hung up for at least 10 minutes day-dreaming about being a lizard.

    Yes, the menu makes me think I'm a fat lizard lying low in the leaves of my hiding place in the English woods. Turning my head in all directions, I look out through a thicket of flowers, weeds, and thistle at an astonishing scene. Moonlight illuminates a mist rising from warm fields. Amidst the glow I see layer on layer of silhouettes. Trees and bushes spout up from the meadow. Fairies are everywhere. Their king is blowing on his big horn, and I can tell Puck is there too from his little horns. Some humans are about--one grieving, some embracing in the shadows. And over there is a human with a donkey's head! Behind this I see all the galaxies of the universe (lizards see this better than humans). But never mind, what I really like is that cloud of bugs buzzing about in the gloaming--easy targets for my long sticky tongue! Enough of this. Check out this menu tableau. The Opus Arte HDVD producer Ferenc van Damme dreamed this up, and Ian Cuming was the artist who created it.

    HDVD and the Future of Ballet

    In my review of the Opus Arte Nureyev 2007 Swan Lake, I predicted that HDVD likely will help popularize ballet. Viewing this Balanchine 1999 Midsummer Night's Dream reinforces my conviction that this will happen.

    I had never heard of the Pacific Northwest Ballet Company. I understand now that this company has an international reputation with ballet fans, but it is not a household name. Reading Dance Magazine and Dance International, I see that there are many such regional and smaller companies around the world doing imaginative and striking work. The success of this beautiful Midsummer Night's Dream from the Pacific Northwest Ballet suggests many other smaller ballet companies throughout the world are capable of producing works fully worthy of showing in home theaters.

    Prior to the development of HDVD, there was no practical way for the smaller companies to be recorded. The equipment was too heavy, expensive, and resource-greedy for smaller budgets. And neither VHS nor DVD presentation did justice to the show. Only the largest companies with big budgets and world-famous stars could break through these these limitations and publish work that would be noticed by the limited ballet audience.

    But now we see proof that with HDVD a regional or small company can create a program that will be welcomed by critical viewers even without world-famous stars. Now we can enjoy a cornucopia of works from ballet companies small and big--and every company and choreographer can have a shot in every production at earning fame all over the world.

    Henry C. McFadyen, Jr., May 1, 2008 updated September 15, 2013