January 28, 2018

Meet Oberon & Tytania, now starring in "The Crown" on Netflix

I'm putting off til next week my planned post on the love-sick lovers of A Midsummer Night's Dream, because I thought of the perfect way to explain the relationship of the King and Queen of Britten's
Fairyland.
Alfred Deller and Jennifer Vyvyan as Oberon and Tytania

That, of course, would be Oberon and Tytania. When we meet them, we sense that the honeymoon is over...

....WAY over...

In point of fact, they're having a "row" (that's the Athenian word for a spat; I'm fluent in Fake Greek), making a scene right there in front of all the other fairies. It's all about Tytania's little human infant, a changeling child, newly orphaned after the death of his mortal mother. Oberon says "I want him"; his wife, no shrinking violet, basically tells him to go jump in the lake.

If you want to know precisely what this supernatural marriage is all about, I have a perfect analogy to render. You people all watch "The Crown", right? You like opera and classy stuff like that - of course you watch it, and are busy perusing all the announced cast changes for Season 3.

It's this simple: Tytania is Elizabeth and Oberon is Philip. Yes, yes, Oberon's a king and Philip isn't, but I'm not referring to titles - it's the dynamics of the marriage I have in mind. Oberon's frustration with Tytania's high-handedness in laying down the law mirrors the manner in which young Prince Philip chafes at being unable to have his way.

Each husband attempts his small rebellions. Philip parties at all hours with slightly unsavory companions, fomenting rumors of infidelity, whereas Oberon hatches a slightly malicious plot to punk Tytania by dosing her with some potent nectar that will famously result in her brief crush on a donkey.

The analogy holds in the scene in which Oberon and Tytania drop their quarrel. They dance a grave dance of reconciliation; it's sedate and serious. This Queen does not leap into her King's arms; there are no passionate declarations of love; no locking of lips. It truly reminds me of that moment in Season 2 of "The Crown" in which Elizabeth and Philip lay their cards on the table in a solemn meeting of minds.

Elizabeth reminds her mate that they don't have the remedies available in normal marriages that have become dysfunctional.

No divorce for them - ever. Not in the cards. They have to stick it out for the good of the monarchy and the good of the nation, so (she urges) they may as well make the best of things.

Fairyland is its own type of "nation", and Oberon and Tytania must face the same reality: they can never part. Indeed, this truth is brought home in their initial duet back in Act 1. The very fact that they are fighting is wreaking havoc with Nature. The seasons don't change on schedule; crops are rotting in the fields; livestock is dying.

Thus, that studied dance of reconciliation is their wordless coming to terms and the equivalent of their human counterparts' pow-wow.

BY THE WAY - isn't it odd, in light of that aforementioned crisis of rotting crops and dead livestock, that NONE OF THE OTHER CHARACTERS EVER MENTION IT?  Sounds to me like Duke Theseus might be a tad concerned with the prevailing pestilence assailing his realm, but I guess he's got a lot on his mind with his marriage to Hippolyta coming up...

Finally, allow me to mention a couple of points on Britten's conception of Oberon as a counter-tenor.
In this day and age, when Baroque opera has become a staple rather than an oddity, you can shake a tree and three or four counter-tenors will fall out of it. They're everywhere, and they're making a living.

In 1960 (the year Britten's Midsummer premiered), however, they were quite uncommon. The composer really wanted his fairies to come across as non-human creatures, the idea being that if fairies were real, you and I might find them rather disturbing. The aural "strangeness" of the counter-tenor timbre automatically set Oberon apart from the tenors, baritones and basses that opera-goers always expect to hear.

The nature of Oberon's vocal color actually creates an issue in live performance, particularly in a large hall. Since Tytania is sung by a "normal" coloratura soprano, balance between the voices can be tricky. Of course, the work was written for a hall with a seating capacity of only 300, in which case Oberon's lines would be easily heard.

The role was created for Alfred Deller, who was supposedly as horrible an actor as he was accomplished as a singer. Deller told an amusing story illustrating the confusion with which many music-lovers greeted his unfamiliar style of vocalizing. After one performance, a German woman came backstage to greet the artist. This dialogue ensued:

WOMAN: Herr Deller, you are... eunuch?
DELLER: Madam, I believe you meant to say "unique".

I imagine it wasn't the first or last time he had occasion to trot out that punchline. Well, why not? It's a pretty good line.

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