Despite several attempts, Mendelssohn never wrote an opera. His marvellously theatrical incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with its shimmering Scherzo and majestic Wedding March, offers a tantalising glimpse of what might have been. This new departure for Garsington Opera, in collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company, is a rare chance to experience Mendelssohn’s much-loved score (written for an 1842 production of Shakespeare’s play and incorporating the brilliant overture written 16 years earlier at the age of 17) in something like its original context.
With the Garsington Orchestra liberated from the pit, the music literally takes centre stage in this new production overseen by RSC Artistic Director Gregory Doran. Conductor Douglas Boyd maintains a taut pace. Many of the music cues are mere bars long, but they enliven dialogue and add atmosphere – vital when daylight in the Wormsley pavilion makes stage definition impossible. The play itself does not greatly shine. The cast feels like an RSC B-team (David Rintoul’s menacing Oberon, Ross Armstrong’s geezer-ish Lysander and Timothy Speyer’s endearing Quince make the strongest impressions), and Shakespeare’s text is pruned to within an inch of its life to avoid an unpalatably long evening. Director Owen Horsley ensures clarity, though, and the Mechanicals’ play is bawdy and silly enough to provide welcome post-interval laughs. There is no attempt at a set, other than raised areas which the cast, in diverse modern dress, leap nimbly on and off.
With spirited orchestral playing and beguiling singing from the Garsington Chorus, it’s Mendelssohn’s music which lingers in the memory. The short Wormsley run is followed by dates at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Stratford.