Mendelssohn’s Dream

Written by: Colin Anderson

Shakespeare’s Play and Mendelssohn’s Incidental Music come together on February 28th in the Royal Festival Hall. Director Tim Carroll brings the actors, and conductor Iván Fischer leads the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Fischer talks about the project.

Strange but true: there are some people that underestimate Mendelssohn’s craftsmanship and abundance of melody. Not so the conductor Iván Fischer. “For musicians he’s one of the best, there’s no doubt. I recently read that there was a concert that Gustav Mahler conducted. There was one piece by Mendelssohn, one of the overtures, and he also said that some people don’t appreciate Mendelssohn enough and that if he had only written a few overtures and the Italian Symphony he would still be one of the best.”

Iván Fischer is working with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment as part of the South Bank’s very welcome Mendelssohn series (which continues until late April). With director Tim Carroll and his selection of actors Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is presented with Mendelssohn’s incidental music, which Fischer describes as “wonderful and imaginative; it has a special aura and takes us into a fairy world which is something extraordinary. He knew the play very well and I have never seen music written with so much care on the play itself. I’m not talking about the famous music numbers but the small pieces that only consist of a few notes between the actors’ lines and which are perfectly integrated. He had an extreme theatrical feel. One can hear the play in the overture, which is dreamlike, earthy, and has parody: the hee-haw!”

One of the advantages of hearing this miraculous score played by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment will be the restoration of particular sounds envisaged by Mendelssohn. “Let me take one example, the ophicleide, which is now a rare instrument, and it sounds incredibly rough; I hope it will be shocking enough! Usually a modern symphony orchestra replaces it with a tuba, which is more gentle and civilised; I think it’s not meant to be as civilised as that. There’s no doubt that the OAE fits the music, and that it will be delicate and articulate. It’s a great thing to have the period instruments.”

Fischer and Carroll have been “working very closely; it’s a very good collaboration.” How is the play itself being presented? “I have seen so many productions of the Dream and it always seems to be a special version because there are usually different cuts, and we will do that too. We will do the play in a shortened version but with all the music that Mendelssohn wrote. What interests me particularly are the pieces of music which are written around the actors’ lines, which are very hard to rehearse because the actors need to know exactly how many seconds to wait between two lines; it needs fantastic co-ordination between the orchestra and the actors.”

This presentation offers not only authentic instruments but also an insight into how the nineteenth-century interpreted Shakespeare. “Shakespeare’s plays have been performed in an ever-changing way; and it has changed much since Mendelssohn’s time. Now the actors are put back to a way preserved from then. It doesn’t affect the whole style of acting and I don’t want to pretend that this is authentic acting – actually, it’s not authentic at all because it has nothing to do with Shakespeare’s time; it’s now Mendelssohn’s time. But there will be an element in this performance that will transform the environment into the early nineteenth-century because music and theatre will come together to create a different style than we are used to.”



  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Royal Festival Hall, 28 February at 7.30
  • South Bank Centre
  • OAE
  • The above article was published in “What’s On in London” on 23 February 2005 and is reproduced here with permission

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