As a sophomore in high school, I was given the opportunity to play Oberon in my school's fall production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Being an inexperienced actor, to be chosen for any part would have been good enough, but to get such an interesting and commanding role left an impression. The director saw something in me that I didn't know was there, and I've never gotten over the acting bug that he instilled in me. I remember sitting backstage before a performance, and listening to the audience shuffle in through the speakers placed in the dressing room. Over the sound of idle chit chat and shuffling feet I heard lovely, one might even say enchanting, music. Curious, I approached the director, who was preoccupied with many more important matters, and asked what the musical selection was. He responded, distractedly, that it was the Midsummer Night's Dream suite by Felix Mendelssohn. Having a burgeoning affection for symphonic music, I made a note to pick up a recording of the composition. However, my director, proving his exemplary dedication to his students, surprised me by presenting me with a copy once the show ended. Thus he solidified my passion for acting and orchestral music, all in one swift but simple stroke. I still have that CD in my collection to this day, and look back fondly on that production, which is why I couldn't say no to this Blu-ray release of the ballet by Opus Arte.
A Midsummer Night's Dream is, of course, one of William Shakespeare's most famous plays, and one of two to not be based on a single pre-existing story or historical event (the other being his final play, The Tempest). The story is a complex comedy about the fates of four Athenian lovers who escape into a forest inhabited by fairies. Through the application of a love potion, the members of the group begin to fall in love in all kinds of odd pairings, much to the amusement of Puck, the mischievous hobgoblin who foils the characters for his own amusement. The play is regularly performed around the world and contains some of Shakespeare's most memorable scenes, including when Titania, bewitched by the love potion, falls in love with Bottom, a man wearing the head of a donkey. It also has some of his most quotable lines, including the final soliloquy, delivered by Puck as he directly addresses the audience.
In translating such a heady and complicated plot (at least three distinct storylines are interwoven throughout the text of the play) to a dialogue-less symphonic score, the onus is squarely on the music to convey the heart of each scene. Felix Mendelssohn originally only wrote an overture for the play, but its popularity convinced him to compose the incidental music seventeen years after the overture's debut. The score, befitting the source material, is lively and spry. It perfectly creates in image in the mind's eye of fairies cavorting through a copse, of love lost and gained, and the good natured humor of Shakespeare's play.
Ballet choreographer George Balanchine took Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream music and combined it with other pieces from the composer's career to form a longer piece that could be performed as the accompaniment to a ballet. This was first performed in 1962 and has been revived by the Pacific Northwest Ballet company. It's an excellent selection of compositions, all chosen to evoke a specific feeling in connection with the events of the plot. This particular production is lavish, with ornate costumes and monstrous backdrops. Titania's bower is framed by gargantuan roses, while Theseus' court features massive columns adorned with garlands. The choreography is impeccable, with the pas de deux being Balanchine's preferred method of expression. But there are also several lovely group dances, most notably the wedding march (set to that most recognizable of Mendelssohn tunes) that begins act II.
A few elements stand out from the crowd that don't work as well. There are a couple of songs that feature lyrics in English that detract from the grace of the overall work. In general, the combination of music and dance manages to convey the general progression of the plot, and to resort to infrequent choral arrangements take the audience out of the piece. On the whole, A Midsummer Night's Dream is tasteful and enjoyable. I can only thank my director for exposing me to it in the first place.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Opus Arte presents A Midsummer Night's Dream in a 1.78:1, AVC-encoded 1080i transfer. The bright colors of the costumes and stages make for some delightful eye candy. Detail is generally high in medium shots and close-ups (those leotards sure are sheer), but wider shots would lose a lot. The drop off to black was a bit more steep than I would have liked, however, and some scenes were inexplicably less sharp than others. I also noticed some light specks once or twice throughout the production, although nothing awful enough to ruin the experience. A Midsummer Night's Dream isn't going to be the first thing you pull out when you want to show off your home theater, but the image is certainly pleasing enough to the eye.
Opus Arte offers an uncompressed lossless PCM 5.1 mix and a PCM 2.0 mix. Much of the music used in the ballet is, if not delicate, than certainly light, and I never felt like the 5.1 mix really created a suitable atmosphere to really immerse me. Some of the grander pieces, such as the "Wedding March," felt more full, but never like they were taking advantage of what a 5.1 mix can offer. I'd prefer a good SACD recording of the original suite if I could get it.
All we get is a cast gallery, which seems somewhat superfluous, since the cast is introduced in an opening credit sequence during the overture.
Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of my favorite orchestral pieces, and Balanchine's ballet does it justice with a strong visual compliment. Not every choice is perfect, but for fans of the piece, this will be a nice treat. The image is generally very good, while the audio could have been mixed a little more dynamically. While Mendelssohn aficionados will want to own this title, I think those who are just curious will want to start with a rental. Rent It.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.