February 3, 2018

What Hermia and Lysander learn in Britten's woods

Hermia loves Lysander. Lysander loves Hermia.

Ain't love grand?

When they defy Theseus and Hermia's father Egeus by ignoring Hermia's forced engagement to Demetrius and running off to the woods, they believe they've got Life all figured out. Shakespeare and Britten know better; they know how much this couple has to learn about love; mature, empathetic, ready-for-marriage love, that is.
Who the lovers love in Act !

As we first come across the rebellious couple, pausing to catch their breath on their way to Lysander's aunt in the next town, they take a moment to reaffirm their pledges of commitment. Here, Britten chose to transplant some lines from Shakespeare's first scene (set in Athens), a scene that was axed in the opera. The lines are Hermia's:

I swear to thee by Cupid's strongest bow,
By his best arrow with the golden head,
By the simplicity of Venus' doves,
By that which knitteth souls and prospers loves,
and so on in that vein.

Britten made a spectacularly great decision to recast this speech as a duet, letting the two characters alternate lines in this fashion:

HERMIA: I swear to thee by Cupid's strongest bow,
LYSANDER: I swear to thee by his best arrow with the golden head,
HERMIA: I swear to the by the simplicity of Venus' doves,
LYSANDER: I swear to thee by that which knitteth souls and prospers loves,
...and so on.

This not only prevents the fast-moving comedy from bogging down in an aria, it also sheds genuine light on the big problem with young immature love:

It's all about the word "I".

Listen to this exchange in this Colin Davis recording; beginning at the 13:20 mark. What we've got is a Shakespearean version of the "Anything you can do I can do better" number from Annie Get Your Gun. Just substitute the word "swear" for "do", and that's what our young lovers are saying.

That's the difference between infatuation and genuine love - the infatuated lover focuses on his or her own feelings: "My stomach hurts; I can't sleep; I can't eat; I feel this; I feel that", and so on. In contrast, when people are in love for real, they tend to focus on the other person. The "loved one" ceases to be merely a reflection of the Self.

This is the journey awaiting Hermia and Lysander. As they interact with fairies (not to mention Helena and Demetrius) and as they sleep, their subconscious minds will continue to process and examine their relationship.

When they awaken for good with the sunrise, Hermia and Lysander have an epiphany (as does the other couple). Their fundamental point of view has been altered: for the first time, each young Athenian is able to stop looking inward, instead regarding their partner with new clarity.

Again, Britten handled this important moment with apt psychology and considerable beauty. First, he had to solve the problem of how to handle the altered viewpoints without the presence of Theseus and Egeus, since their scene in the forest has been cut. His solution is clever and apt. Helena's line
"And I have found Demetrius like a jewel. Mine own, and not mine own.", rather than being said only by Helena, is distributed among all four lovers, each plugging in the name of their partner.

And I have found fair Helen like a jewel...
And I have found Lysander like a jewel...

What makes this quartet so expressive is a simple but brilliant device: a sudden shift of harmony and key on the word "jewel". It's a graphic depiction of the shift in perception each lover has of his or her beloved. In the link above, this passage begins at 1:23:45; listen to it unfold. The repetitions of "like a jewel" convey the awe and wonder with which each character now beholds their destined partner. Their voices rise to a climax of transcendent joy - perhaps my favorite moment in the entire opera.

As for Demetrius - well, unlike the other three, he has been "dosed" by Puck's flower nectar. Apparently, his new affection for Helena is the product of magic. Should we hope that this "spell" lasts for the next fifty years or so? Yikes - what happens if, three years later, a sudden loud noise should break the spell, snapping Demetrius back to his pre-spell attitude and wondering how the hell he wound up married to such an annoying woman?

Of course, this is a phenomenon that happens in real-life marriages, isn't it? Don't most of us know couples for whom the "magic" wore off after a few years of co-habitation?

What exactly is Shakespeare telling us about love and romance, anyway? Is it possible that any time we "fall in love", it's a sort of spell like Demtrius'? A spell that can be broken, leaving as quickly as it came? Clearly, many romances begin as unrealistic semi-narcissistic infatuations like Lysander's. 

Perhaps, when infatuation matures into unselfish love, it's always the work of Oberon and Puck! 

Thanks, fellas.


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