Midsummer Night in Midwinter

Operas on Shakespearean subjects are innumerable. Operas that use Shakespeare’s own words are few. His sound and sense make their own music, too densely textured to bear easily the overlay. The most frequent nineteenth-century strategy in adapting Shakespeare to the opera house was to reduce his action to operatic commonplace, his language to operatic cliché. Verdi’s Otello and Falstaff stand alone: Shakespearean by virtue of the richness of the drama, Shakespearean too in the splendor of the language, which is no slavish line-by-line translation of the English dialogue but songful, inspired Italian paraphrase. Seven decades later, with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Benjamin Britten proved that results of comparable merit could be achieved with Shakespeare’s own language, though he abbreviated the text ruthlessly, sometimes barbarously. The popularity of Britten’s goblin-haunted score waxes apace. The latest of several American revivals is now at the San Francisco Opera (November 29 to December 12,415-864-3330).