A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Ballet fantastique in one act
Music by Felix Mendelssohn & Ludwig Minkus

World Première
26th July [O.S. 14th July] 1876
Peterhof Palace, Saint Petersburg

Original 1876 Cast
Titania
Eugenia Sokolova

Oberon
Marie Petipa

Plot
Inspired by the comic play by William Shakespeare of love, confusion and magic set in the fairy world of the Fairy King and Queen Oberon and Titania. The ballet was a large divertissement of dances by butterflies, flowers, grasshoppers and other denizens of the world of fairies and elves.

Maria Anderson as Puck, Anna Johansson as Titania, Marie Petipa as Oberon, Timofei Stukolkin as Bottom and Natalia Matveyevna as the Robin (1889)
Maria Anderson as Puck, Anna Johansson as Titania, Marie Petipa as Oberon, Timofei Stukolkin as Bottom and Natalia Matveyevna as the Robin (1889)

History
William Shakespeare wrote his play A Midsummer Night’s Dream between 1595 and 1596. The play premièred on the 1st January 1601 at the Globe Theatre in London, portraying the events surrounding the marriage of Theseus, Duke of Athens, to Hippolyta, former Queen of the Amazons. The play centres around the love rectangle between Hermia, Lysander, Helena and Demetrius, who flee into the Fairyland of Oberon and Titania, only to have their problems be made more complicated by the mischievous Puck. Since its première, A Midsummer Night’s Dream has become one of Shakespeare’s most popular works and has been the subject of various adaptations in music, literature, art, film and dance.

The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania by Sir Joseph Noel Paton (1849)
The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania by Sir Joseph Noel Paton (1849)

In 1826, Felix Mendelssohn composed his A Midsummer Night’s Dream Concert Overture, the first of his two music pieces inspired by the play. The Overture premièred on the 20th February in Stettin, Prussia (now Szczecin, Poland). Sixteen years later, Mendelssohn composed his A Midsummer Night’s Dream Incidental Music for a full-length staging of the play on commission from King Frederick William IV of Prussia, who had been thoroughly impressed by Mendelssohn’s other incidental music compositions for other plays that had been staged at his palace in German translation. For the Incidental Music, Mendelssohn incorporated his Overture and composed the world-famous Wedding March, which is often used today at weddings. The new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was staged at the New Palace in Potsdam on the 14th October 1843.

In 1876, Petipa utilised Mendelssohn’s Incidental Music to stage a one-act ballet based on Shakespeare’s play, with Ludwig Minkus rearranging the score and adding new music numbers. Petipa’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was premièred on the 26th July [O.S. 14th July] 1876 at Peterhof Palace.

Pavel Gerdt, Vera Zhukova and Varvara Nikitina as Butterflies (1889)
Pavel Gerdt, Varvara Nikitina and Vera Zhukova as Butterflies (1889)

Throughout the 20th century, Mendelssohn’s score has been utilised by various choreographers to create new ballet versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Such productions include John Neumeier’s 1977 production for the Hamburg Ballet and Sir Frederick Ashton’s 1964 one-act staging under the title The Dream for the Royal Ballet. Perhaps the most famous full-length ballet production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that is danced today is George Balanchine’s 1962 production for New York City Ballet. Balanchine had danced as an elf and an insect in Petipa’s production when he was a student, which inspired him to create his own version. This was to be Balanchine’s first full-length ballet. A trained musician, Balanchine arranged the music score, himself, using additional music pieces by Mendelssohn from some of his other compositions including his Symphony No. 9 for Strings and The First Walpurgis Night. He also used a German tradition for the staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which Titania is portrayed by a performer who is taller than the performer portraying Oberon. Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was premièred on the 17th January 1962 with Melissa Hayden as Titania, Edward Villella as Oberon, Arthur Mitchell as Puck and Gloria Govin as Hippolyta.

 

Sources