What the opera is, and what it represents in terms of a dynamic theatrical experience, is an issue to have vexed many commentators over the half-century since its Covent Garden premiere: certainly the overlaying of Jungian psychoanalytical enquiry onto a scenario with its roots lying in pre-Christian antiquity (were Rutland Boughton's Celtic tetralogy to be revived, Tippett's preoccupations might not seem wholly unanticipated) has taken on an appreciably different interpretation since 1955. Yet the drama's appeal to the collective unconscious, of which the main protagonists are each individuated archetypes (though not necessarily separate individuals), remains undiminished as a challenge to the humanity of whatever era – and a challenge that any stage production has to confront head on.
First seen in 1996, Graham Vick's production is strongest precisely when dealing with the collective – treating the opera as a ritual-cum-mystery-play that vividly reinforces a sense of encompassing all those on stage and, by extension, those in the auditorium. If it is less convincing in delineating the individual characters, that at least reflects possible shortcomings in the way that Tippett attempts to amalgamate character-archetypes with elements of a period realism that can only seem relative to us now. In the case of Mark and Jenifer, the depiction of humans as ciphers is not resolved here. This is less an issue with the other protagonists, and Vick is able effectively to point up the nexus of interrelationships that galvanises the drama and also informs what can only be portrayed in music.
In this Vick is abetted by Paul Brown's stage designs which, though hardly innovative, create a mise en scène which is both timeless and draws those non-Western components – notably the Hindu concept of rebirth – into a coherent and intelligible accord. Although a little hung up on shades of red for much of the opera's duration, David Harvey's revival of Wolfgang Göbbel's lighting is impressively immediate at the climax of Act Three. Profligate with literary and musical ideas, “The Midsummer Marriage” demands an equally strong visual focus such as projects a belief in the power of human self-renewal with absolute conviction: Vick and associates may not succeed throughout all its considerable length, but they do clarify the opera's points of greatest conflict and resolution with no mean assurance.
The cast, several of whom took part in the production first-time-round, is a dependable one – often more so. Will Hartmann is a vibrant and resolute Mark – rising to the challenges of Tippett's lyrical effusions in Act One, yet withholding the ultimate rapture until his 'transformed' emergence at the opera's exquisitely understated climax. Unexpected casting as Jenifer, Amanda Roocroft impresses with the personality that she brings to the role – vividly acting out her inner conflicts and with an almost complete command of the exacting coloratura. Yet it is Bella and Jack who take the stage for a greater proportion of the opera, and here Cora Burggraaf and Gordon Gietz excel in assumptions – both superbly sung – that recognise the social conventions holding back their respective characters until their heightened 'declaration of independence' just prior to the unveiling of Sosostris – a telling gesture towards self-enlightenment that Tippett, the committed Humanist, was well placed to make.
As King Fisher, John Tomlinson retains all of his previous authority, even though the voice is no longer at its richest. There is an underlying insecurity to this most overbearing character that insinuates itself beyond all the rhetoric concerning money and status: something that informs the portrayal to the degree that his demise has an underlying compassion beyond the merely formal. Elena Manistina has the roundness and absolute steadiness of tone right for Sosostris – commanding the attention in what is the opera's 'black hole' of inward intensity. Brindley Sherratt and Diana Montague are well-matched as He-Ancient and She-Ancient – seers guarding their domain with disdain, but also a wry amusement that says much about the events to come and the characters that make them happen.
In one of modern opera's most vital choral contributions, the Royal Opera Chorus makes a laudable showing – whether in the gatherings on Midsummer Day, or the numerous offstage contributions. The crucial ballet component is ably handled by Ron Howell, though the 'Ritual Dances' in Act Two lack the variety to sustain the music when each of the repeats is observed, and the choreography for ‘Fire in Summer’ seems unduly hemmed in at the front of the stage for its physicality wholly to register.
Unlike Bernard Haitink in 1996, Richard Hickox opts for some of the small cuts in Act Three (notably the choral preamble before the Sunrise ending) – though, on stage at least, these tighten the drama when tension needs be keenest. Fine playing from the ROH orchestra is offset by scrappy articulation in some of Tippett's demanding contrapuntal writing, such as will doubtless be ironed out as the run proceeds. And, if at times a little literal in his phrasing, Hickox clearly appreciates the idiosyncratic magnetism that makes this one of post-war opera's most engrossing and life-enhancing creations: one to which the present revival, whatever its passing failures, does considerable justice. Do see it.
- Performances at 6.30 on 3, 8, 11, 16 & 18 November; broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 26 November at 6.30
- Box office: 020 7304 4000
- Royal Opera