Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, a Comedy of Magic and Mistaken Identities
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Featuring the award-winning set and costume designs of David Guthrie, and the remarkable score that, almost overnight, made Felix Mendelssohn a star — performed live by Symphony Silicon Valley.
This magical, musical Shakespearean comedy is brilliantly told in dance with all the fabulous plot twists and turns, the mistaken and mismatched lovers, the supernatural characters of Puck, Oberon and Titania, with a full retinue of fairies and sprites from the Ballet San Jose SCHOOL, and, of course, the unforgettable and bemused jackass, Bottom. A more complete description from Artistic / Executive Director Dennis Nahat can be found here.
And, this production will mark both the 20th Anniversary of Dennis Nahat’s production and the 200th Anniversary of Felix Mendelssohn’s birth.
Choreography: DENNIS NAHAT
Costumes and Scenery: DAVID GUTHRIE
Lighting: KENNETH KEITH
Composer: FELIX MENDELSSOHN
Conductor: DWIGHT OLTMAN
Performed with Symphony Silicon Valley
It is pure serendipity that Dennis Nahat’s 20th Anniversary production of his ballet-telling of Shakespeare’s fantastical comedy should coincide with the 200th Anniversary of the birth of one of the giants of the music world…Felix Mendelssohn. The fact that Mendelssohn made his fame by composing the concert overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” while still a teenager, just adds frosting to the cake.
Mendelssohn (1809–1847) was born into a wealthy and distinguished family. His father was the head of a great banking firm and his grandfather was the famed Jewish Humanist philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. His mother was a gifted musician and encouraged Felix at an early age to develop his musical gifts. It was soon obvious that his gifts were great, and it is said that his compositional talents came to him with ease. But his discipline belied that and he labored long and hard at his craft.
By royal request, in 1843 Mendelssohn composed a dozen pieces of incidental music to go along with his previously completed overture for a stage production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in Berlin. He never intended it to be used for a ballet. Mendelssohn never composed anything for the ballet and his one opera (The Wedding of Comacho) was an early failure.
Dennis Nahat has assembled a remarkable score for his full-length A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (which premiered October 6, 1989). It includes all of the incidental music and the overture that Mendelssohn wrote for the Shakespearean play. Also included is music from the cantata Die Erste Walpurgis Nacht; the Second Symphony, a cantata-symphony entitled Lobesgesan;, the popular Scotch Symphony, the third of Mendelssohn’s five mature symphonies; the B-flat Major String Quartet, Opus 87; and the overtures to Das Märchen von der shönen Melusine and Die Heimkehr aus der Fremde.
Music historian Tad Deans writes in his program notes for the ballet’s playbill the following explanation of how the music is used:
The four wonderfully evocative and, for their time, novel chords that open and close the Overture return at intervals throughout the ballet, Mendelssohn himself having used them throughout the incidental music. Music from the Overture becomes the prelude to the first act and the entr’acte before the second, its recapitulation setting the tone for the harmonious working out of the tangled plot.
In the famous incidental music (including the inescapable Wedding March) written in 1842, the composer was able to return to the moonlit world he had created more than 15 years earlier without any noticeable change in idiom. Perhaps the loveliest movement is the Nocturne, which is used to telling effect in the ballet as a pas de deux for Titania and Oberon, when the fairy king and queen are reconciled. The very heart of the ballet, it is also the first music of the evening in a broad tempo.
The music for the ballet’s prologue, the battle between the Athenians and the Amazons (which is only alluded to in Shakespeare), comes from the Overture to the dramatic choral and orchestral cantata Die Erste Walpurgisnacht (The First Walpurgis Night), written by Mendelssohn during his first trip to Italy in 1831. The cantata is a setting of one of Goethe’s ballads, a paean to German nationalism in the form of a Romantic evocation of Germany’s pagan past – the defiant worship of the “old gods” in the face of advancing Christianity.
The jubilant overture to the little singspiel, or operetta, Die Heimkehr Aus Der Fremde (literally, Homecoming from Abroad, but generally known as Son and Stranger) makes an appearance, minus its slow introduction, in the first scene of Act One, set in Athens. Mendelssohn wrote the score as a silver wedding anniversary present for his parents, and it was performed privately in their home. Written only for his family, Mendelssohn produced a work of utter charm that deserves to be better known.
For the entrance and dance of Oberon and his retinue, the choreographer has chosen music from the first movement of the composer’s second symphony, subtitled Lobesqe Sanq, or Hymn of Praise. The second movement, a waltz-like scherzo, becomes a pas de deux for Titania and Bottom. Though rarely performed today, the Hymn of Praise, with its lengthy choral finale incorporating solos, duets and fugal choruses, enjoyed immediate and widespread success in the composer’s lifetime.
The andante-scherzando of the Opus 87 String Quintet is the imaginative choice for the antics of the rustics as they practice their play in the woods. Like much of Mendelssohn’s chamber music, it is intended primarily for private, amateur performance and, unlike the chamber music of the later Romantics, it retains the quality of intimacy that was the traditional hallmark of the medium.
The overture to Das Mdrchen Von Der Schonen Melusine (The Tale of Fair Melusina) brings the first act to a close. This concert overture to an unwritten opera is one of Mendelssohn’s loveliest works. The story concerns the love of a beautiful young woman who, because of a spell she is under, must every seventh day assume the form of a water sprite. Her husband, a knight, swears never to question her periodic disappearances. When he breaks his promise, Melusina must leave the world of mortals forever to live as a water sprite. The overture is remarkable for its dreamy, contemplative, melancholy quality and is the perfect music to suggest the romantic misfortunes of the Athenian lovers in the ballet.
In the second act of the ballet, two movements from Mendelssohn’s popular Scotch Symphony provide large-scale musical structures for the pas de deux of Theseus and Hippolyta and the culminating general dance. Conceived in 1829 during the composer’s only sojourn to Scotland, the symphony was not completed to his satisfaction until 1842.
Because of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the name of Felix Mendelssohn will always be linked with that of Shakespeare. Countless times to the accompaniment of Mendelssohn’s enchanting music, now 180 years old, Shakespeare’s lovers have laughed and wept in the Athenian forest, the rude mechanicals have danced and blundered, and the fairies have sung their queen sweetly to sleep. Yet the music remains ever fresh and new. Hearing again those four magical chords that begin the Dream, the mind turns in wonder to the boy of seventeen who conjured such marvels in his parents’ garden on a summer’s evening.