Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the incidental music by Mendelssohn it inspires both employ a wide range of expressive techniques in their respective medium. Bringing the drama and the music together in one performance, the Queensland Symphony Orchestra and 4MBS Arts Productions delivered an evening of finely tuned light entertainment.

Johannes Fritzsch, © QSO Portraits
Johannes Fritzsch,
© QSO Portraits

As Mendelssohn’s music took place among the orchestra centre stage, dramatic excerpts from Shakespeare’s play were enacted around the fringes, in parts on raised platforms. Although this format ruled out the use of elaborate set designs, it nevertheless provided context and illustrative support to the music.

Mendelssohn’s incidental music consists of several individually well-known pieces. In addition to the Overture, written separately from the rest of the work when the composer was not yet 18, the Scherzo, Nocturne and Wedding March are favourites in their own right.

The Overture is a combination of delicate softness and resolute declarations. It paints a vivid musical picture of the disparate elements in the drama, ranging from the spritely steps of the fairies in a flurry of notes in rapid string passages, to the stately pomp of aristocracy in march-like passages played by the full orchestra. Queensland Symphony captured all the critical elements that would make the overture successful.

The Scherzo, with its sustained vivacity, is musical impersonation of the fairy world. Although the strings made valiant attempts to assert themselves, the woodwinds worked hard to win the day, always in front and impishly teasing the strings along.

Soprano Natalie Peluso excelled with controlled gentleness in the song “You Spotted Snakes”, although mezzo-soprano Hayley Sugars was not particularly memorable. The University of Queensland Choir tackled the chorus with childlike buoyancy, sounding very much like a children’s choir.

The Nocturne was certainly lyrical, but I would have liked it a little more dreamy and carefree, while the Wedding March was the pinnacle of colour and majesty.

Conductor Johannes Fritzsch maintained a light and unforced touch throughout Mendelssohn’s music, providing a playful undertone to Shakespeare’s drama. There were brief moments when the bass section of the orchestra seemed to be slightly too dominant, but pacing was relaxed and unhurried, appropriate in creating an ethereal atmosphere, and dynamic contrast was well managed.

A small number of actors, most of whom played more than one character, kept the dramatic momentum apace, moving swiftly between the imaginary world of the fairies and the elevated rarity of aristocracy in the limited space around the stage. The “mechanicals” or craftsmen, whose literal approach to the play for the Duke’s wedding, aroused plenty of laughter. Nick Backstrom’s portrayal of the earthly ignorance and simplicity of Bottom was quite endearing, standing out as a highlight among the dramatic parts of the evening.

It is easy to understand how Shakespeare’s fantastic tale of amorous misadventure and supernatural intervention stimulated the fertile imagination of Mendelssohn. The Queensland Symphony and 4MBS Arts Productions skilfully wove his music and Shakespeare’s drama into an enchanting tapestry of lively entertainment.

****1