The Midsummer Marriage – Opera in three Acts to a libretto by the composer
Mark – Robert Murray
Jenifer – Rachel Nicholls
King Fisher – Ashley Riches
Bella – Jennifer France
Jack – Toby Spence
Sosostris – Claire Barnett-Jones
She-Ancient – Susan Bickley
He-Ancient – Joshua Bloom
London Philharmonic Choir
English National Opera Chorus
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded live by BBC Radio 3 on 25 September 2021 at the Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall
Reviewed by: David Gutman
Reviewed: September 2022
CD No: LPO-0124 [3 CDs]
Duration: 2 hours 38 minutes
It was Edward Gardner’s daring idea to open his London Philharmonic tenure with a concert performance of Tippett’s magnum opus and by and large the decision has paid off. Notwithstanding the interventions of COVID, some unintended changes of cast and remedial choral stiffening, the performance was well received in the hall on the night, in the press, and now, one year later, on disc.
Which is not to claim any stupendous revelations. The crucial advance on 1955’s original run of performances under John Pritchard, preserved on a variety of bootlegs by virtue of the participation of the young Joan Sutherland as Jenifer, came in 1968 with Colin Davis’s Covent Garden revival and the associated studio recording (1970). This was last sighted on two Lyrita CDs [SRCD2217]. David Atherton’s 1980s Thames TV broadcast with Philip Langridge, David Wilson-Johnson et al has not resurfaced so far as I am aware. The LPO set involves three sound carriers which makes for a sensible division of the action while necessitating a hefty price tag. You do get a heartfelt essay from the conductor himself, notes by Oliver Soden and a full libretto, the supposed deficiencies of which continue to provoke column inches. Time will tell whether Britten’s essentially repressive realism retains its lead in the world’s opera houses. The point being that Tippett’s narrative, a Jungian take on The Magic Flute (timeless but also ‘dated’ on arrival as Soden explains), serves to trigger euphoric musical invention rather than straitjacketing its every move. The orchestra is the opera’s life force. Traditional cuts do not prevent a regrettable dip in tension following the elimination of the capitalist villain of the piece. Still, Gardner’s LPO is on magnificent form, conveying a joyousness born of dark times, the vigour almost desperate. The sound is less dry, better balanced and more luminous than it was from my stalls seat.
Whether by accident or design Gardner was left with a line-up in which minor characters outshine the principals. The down-to-earth Papageno/Papagena pairing of Jack (Toby Spence) and Bella (Jennifer France) is a conspicuous triumph. Spence, for most listeners the most familiar and trusted name in the cast, is well matched with a relative newcomer, winner of the Critics’ Circle Emerging Talent Award in 2018. Now that Tippett’s well-intentioned text risks coming across as patronising, the soprano’s ‘make-up’ aria needs must be played with inverted commas, and throughout Act Two there is enough humour and irony in the relationship for it to be re-interpreted in line with the proclivities of the day. Equally strong in their limited appearances are the mysterious Ancients, incarnated by Susan Bickley and Joshua Bloom.
The bigger parts are paler. The King Fisher of Ashley Riches and the Sosostris of Claire Barnett-Jones, both decently sung, boast no great weight of sonority, let alone the depth of character and experience projected by Raimund Herincx and Helen Watts for Davis. Not always helped by the microphone placement, Riches sounds more like Jenifer’s brother than her dangerous, big businessman father. Had Felicity Palmer been able to play the role of the clairvoyant as originally announced, the balance of the entire show would doubtless have shifted in quite another direction. As the nearest thing to a male lead Robert Murray’s Mark is again more of a cipher than Alberto Remedios for Davis, enunciating the text with impressive clarity, occasional strain and not much heft. Rachel Nicholls, a budding Wagnerian with some tendency to squalliness, does her best with the impossibilist writing for the heroine. If Murray seems timbrally too lyrical, Nicholls is perhaps not lyrical enough! Both were less audible in the hall than they are now. Perhaps it is part of the game plan that the iridescent ‘Ritual Dances’ should emerge as more central than ever. No semi-staged clumping about on this occasion to mar their impact as pure music.
How to sum up? With choral singing mostly as burnished as the orchestral playing, this is a valuable supplement to (if by no means a replacement for) the classic Covent Garden version. The composer felt it his role to provide “images of abounding, generous, exuberant beauty” for “an age of mediocrity and shattered dreams.” Take that seriously and for all its superficial dottiness The Midsummer Marriage feels more ‘relevant’ than ever against the backdrop of the Conservative Party’s Autumn Conference.