IN THIS NERVOUS TIME FOR MANAGERS OF MUSICAL INSTITUTIONS, with graying audiences and shrinking budgets, more and more are turning to means beyond the ordinary manner of presentation in an effort to draw in people who would not normally attend a concert. So we have dancers sharing the stage with chamber orchestras and singers in costume acting out Bach cantatas. Some of these experiments are mere gimmickry, of course, but some are so effective that they leave audiences wondering why they were not done before. For example, why not reunite Felix Mendelssohn's popular incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream with professional players doing scenes from Shakespeare's comedy of the same name? Coincidentally, this notion was realized not once but twice in New York in the season just past. In Lincoln Center's Great Performers series at Alice Tully Hall, Ivan Fischer led the Orchestra and Choir of the Age of Enlightenment in Mendelssohn's score, with an acting troupe directed by Tim Carroll, an associate director of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London. At Avery Fisher Hall, as part of the New York Philharmonic regular subscription season, Sir Neville Marriner oversaw the orchestra, a cast of singers, and the women of the New York Choral Artists in a staging directed by Edward Berkeley, who was also credited with an "adaptation," meaning an abridgement of the play.
Mendelssohn wrote the celebrated overture to Midsummer as a standalone concert piece in 1826, when he was seventeen years old. Seventeen years later he returned to the score at the urging of King Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia, when he was serving as court director of music. By this time, Shakespeare's plays were highly regarded throughout Continental Europe, and the king had given his assent to a performance of Midsummer Night's Dream. He asked Mendelssohn to provide songs, entr'actes and brief orchestral episodes for insertion at appropriate points in the play. Some of these are familiar to audiences through their inclusion in the often played suite the composer drew from the incidental music: the Scherzo, with its flute solo, that accompanies Puck's encounter with an elf in the forest; the Act III entr'acte, the Nocturne, with its unforgettable horn solo; the song "You spotted snakes"; and, of course, the well-known Wedding March. The complete score was given its premiere in a private performance of the play in October of 1843 at the Neue Palais in Potsdam, and Mendelssohn himself led the first concert presentation of the incidental music in May of 1844 in London.
Both of the New York performances had their merits, but their drawbacks too. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment plays on period-style instruments, and they could not approach the Philharmonic's tonal richness: the rushing string figurations of the overture's first subject after the opening woodwind chords were gossamer light in the Philharmonic's hands, and the Nocturne's luscious horn solo, splendidly rendered by the Philharmonic's veteran first horn, Philip Myers, had the audience holding its breath. Similarly with the vocal contributions: the Choir of the Age of Enlightenment performed ably, but Joseph Flummerfelt's women of the New York Choral Artists outclassed them, and the same went for the Enlightenment's soloists, drawn from the ranks of the Choir: the Philharmonic's soprano Susan Gritton and mezzo-soprano Patricia Risley were delightfully fleet and sure.
The fact that neither hall has an orchestra pit created unique problems of stagecraft for the directors. The two took different approaches. At Avery Fisher, with its deep stage, Berkeley took a conventional tack: the actors delivered their lines from the front of the stage, dressed in standard concert garb and bearing the play's script in black folders. At Tully, Carroll deployed his actors over the entire stage, often mingling with the orchestra and sometimes interacting with them, leading to some strained business: when Bottom's head became that of a donkey, he donned a horn snatched from a player to simulate the change. …