Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and the Overture and Incidental Music that Felix Mendelssohn composed for the play go together like bush and briar, but nowadays they rarely turn up on the same stage. Including the music necessitates trimming the text if the evening is not to extend to the iron tongue of midnight. Wednesday at the Hatch Shell, however, Commonwealth Shakespeare Company artistic director Steven Maler edited the play down to 90 minutes, and the Boston Landmarks Orchestra under music director Christopher Wilkins fleshed that out with Mendelssohn’s score. The result, which ran a reasonable 2 hours and 15 minutes, didn’t quite replicate Bottom’s “rare vision,” but it was a treat all the same.
Cutting “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to make room for music and dance actually has been the norm over the past four centuries. In 1692, Henry Purcell composed music for a London version, “The Fairy Queen,” that offered swans, monkeys, haymakers, the four seasons, a Chinese couple, and Phoebus Apollo.
Mendelssohn, on the other hand, paid handsome tribute to the original. He wrote the Overture in 1826, when he was just 17, and it’s the play in a nutshell: fairy scurrying, a royal processional, moonlit romance, and the braying of donkey-headed Bottom. The Incidental Music followed in 1842, for a German-language production. Like the play, the music is lightfooted but not lightweight. Against the familiar triumphal Wedding March that precedes act five, there’s the wistful Nocturne, suggesting that the lovers might not all live happily ever after, and a finale that dissipates like a midsummer morning mist.
In this performance the text, even with Maler’s nip-and-tuck approach to cutting, suffered considerable damage: Hermia’s hilarious “she hath urged her height” attack on Helena went by the boards, and so did Theseus’s musing on “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet.” The one character to disappear was Robin Starveling, who plays Moonshine in the rustics’ staging of “Pyramus and Thisbe”; he wasn’t needed, as a nearly full moon beamed down on the Esplanade.
And the plot survived, if not the poetry, in what amounted to groundling theater. Every line was clearly delivered, but characterization tended to be excessive, especially Lewis D. Wheeler’s Theseus and Oberon and Juan C. Rodriguez’s Puck. Georgia Lyman was more neutral as Hippolyta and Titania; her best moment came early, when Hippolyta reached out to sympathize with the threatened Hermia. Kate Paulsen’s Helena was the most personable of the four young lovers, a little giddy and ditsy; and Paulsen dealt efficiently with a minor wardrobe malfunction. Amanda Ruggiero came into her own as Hermia more gradually; Matt Giampietro as Lysander and Billy Finn as Demetrius were suitably interchangeable.
Robert Pemberton, despite having no mask but only donkey ears, made an adorable ass of himself as Bottom; Brandon Whitehead’s much put-upon Peter Quince offered unnerving insight into the travails of stage directors in Shakespeare’s time. The highlight of the very broad presentation of “Pyramus and Thisbe” was Paul Melendy’s flouncing Thisbe.
Neither Brooke Stanton’s mostly contemporary costuming nor Yo-el Cassell’s choreography was remarkable, though the lovers got some substantial country-dance turns during the Wedding March. There was affecting singing from soprano Margot Rood as the First Fairy and alto Thea Lobo as the Second.
Mendelssohn’s delicate scoring might not seem suited to outdoor performance through speakers, but Wilkins and the Landmarks orchestra made it clear why this music is so popular. I do wish Wilkins had given the Nocturne more breathing room; there’s a sadness to it that wasn’t conveyed. Still, any collaboration on “Midsummer” that does justice to both Shakespeare and Mendelssohn is reason to celebrate.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Presented by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company and the Boston Landmarks Orchestra conducted by Christopher Wilkins. At DCR Hatch Shell, Wednesday
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.