Tippett’s Midsummer Marriage is an opera of exuberant genius — but forget about the text

24 August 2013

9:00 AM

24 August 2013

9:00 AM

The Midsummer Marriage

The Proms

Whenever Michael Tippett’s first opera, The Midsummer Marriage, is revived, there is a chorus of voices, including mine, complaining that it should be done much more often, for it is a work of exuberant genius, full of wonderful musical invention, and life-affirming in the way that Britten’s operas never are (with, I think, the exception of Albert Herring). Yet the Prom performance, semi-staged, it was claimed, but rather less than that, did make clear, while doing justice to Tippett’s score, why Marriage is always likely to be something of an outsider. For the text was provided complete in the programme book, and since the balance, at least where I sat, favoured the orchestra over the voices, I followed it and was, yet once more, nonplussed and sometimes incredulous that it could have been so inept, pretentious and downright undramatic.

Tippett’s next two operas, King Priam and The Knot Garden, though no paradigms of dramaturgy, are markedly superior. In fact it’s hard to think of any other opera where one’s responses are so divided between love, even ecstasy, of and at the music and recoil from the text. It’s not only the words, though they are often bad enough; it’s the overall construction, which led even the composer himself to suggest that he had written a masque or oratorio rather than an opera. But even those genres have their limits, and it’s difficult to imagine any category that Tippett’s piece wouldn’t transgress.

His claim that at least in part it is meant to be a modern Zauberflöte is damaging, for although Mozart’s masterpiece has a notoriously chaotic plot, the two central figures, Tamino and Pamina, are kept constantly in view and we see and hear them progress towards the light. But Tippett’s pair, Mark and Jenifer, are met quarrelling in Act I, disappear completely for Act II, and are encountered in a state of transfiguration (what is it?) in Act III. So while there may be progress, there is no process. And that is generally true of the opera, which is a collection of disparate scenes, some much more impressive than others, which would fall apart were it not for the sheer vitality of Tippett’s musical invention.

Whatever he may have been like as a person, one I’d have loved to meet, in his works he manifests that kind of energy that precludes humour, though that would certainly not have been his intention. That means that the flattest parts of Marriage are the scenes between the ‘low’ pair, Jack the mechanic and Bella the secretary. And their almost explicit invocation of Mozart’s Papageno and Papagena only forces the point home. They seem to be in the work only to vindicate its claim to comprehensiveness. The truly impressive parts of the score, a large proportion of it (though the Prom performance was cut in the now customary way, which reduces the length of Act III considerably), are mostly choral, with the magnificent opening setting an exhilarating standard that it would be amazing if the rest of the score sustained. Those choruses, mainly of unspecific young people, are often joined by the soloists, and one of the penalties of being in the Royal Albert Hall was that in this work where balances are so crucial and so difficult, they couldn’t be heard. I left after Act II, and listened to the whole opera the next day on my DAT recording of the concert, with vastly more enjoyment.

The soloists were a mainly very satisfactory lot, though they could all be seen battling to project their often angular lines over the orchestra. The one who had the greatest success was David Wilson Johnson as King Fisher, replacing Peter Sidhom. Since his part is all bluster, it wasn’t too difficult. The central pair were both fine, though Paul Groves as Mark naturally found the role a strain, as all its performers have; the tessitura of his role makes him seem more strenuous a character than he is. Erin Wall’s Jenifer was sung with remarkable beauty. The working-class pair were excellently matched, with Ailish Tynan born to sing Bella, and obviously loving it, while Allan Clayton, the industrious Jack, also a tenor, held his own with her. By far the most imposing performance, at any rate on radio, was Catherine Wyn-Rogers as Madame Sosostris, whose Act III monologue is not only the longest piece of solo singing in the opera but also by far the most impressive. The BBC Singers and Chorus, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, were all evidently inspired by Andrew Davis’s conducting. I wonder when the next performance will be.

Last week in my review of the Sydney Harbour Carmen, I wrote that it was advertised as live. This was not so: CinemaLive, which was responsible for it, does not claim to be of live relays, but only of performances which were given before an audience as opposed to studio performances. I apologise for my literal-mindedness.

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