Michael Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage – London Philharmonic Orchestra/Edward Gardner with Robert Murray, Rachel Nicholls, Ashley Riches & Toby Spence

The Midsummer Marriage – Opera in three acts to a libretto by the composer [sung in English with surtitles]

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
Dancing Man – John Findon
Half-Tipsy Man – Trevor Bowes
A Man – Robert Winslade Anderson
A Girl – Sophie Goldrick

London Philharmonic Choir and ENO Chorus

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Edward Gardner

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 25 September, 2021
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London

Sir Michael Tippett’s first, ambitious opera, The Midsummer Marriage, has tended to divide opinion between those who reject its narrative on account of obscurity, and those who hail the opera’s bold dramaturgy and rich score; or some are ambivalent within themselves as they would jettison the drama or libretto, but salvage the music. True, the words are often banal and clumsy, and the fact that T.S. Eliot turned down a request to write the libretto must remain a tantalising might-have-been of operatic history. On the other hand, for the same reason that setting Shakespeare’s plays directly as texts (rather than drastically adapted) has generally proved a non-starter on account of their verbal and dramatic complexity, a composition setting words by the author of The Waste Land and Four Quartets might have proved an over-egged operatic pudding, as the whole point is that music fills in the emotional and psychological gaps left by an inchoate text. (Flawed as this opera may be, I must confess that to my mind it is more magically engaging than the more or less provincial social realism and vapid musicality of Tippett’s contemporary, Britten, in his stage works, The Turn of the Screw and Curlew River excepted.)

The charge of obscurity against the work can surely be retired. In an age where access to information has never been easier, it takes hardly any effort to research the Jungian intellectual foundation for the drama that was such an inspiration for Tippett. Even without much knowledge of that framework, the work’s title and the fact of the retreat to the woods in the narrative clearly evoke Shakespeare’s Midsummer play – both works constituting the frame for dream-like, lyrical visions which take place in that psychologically charged setting, against the backdrop of the lightest day of the year.

The sustained use of symbols and metaphors like that in a drama do not condemn such operas as the avowedly Symbolist Pelleas et Melisande, nor Die Frau ohne Schatten, still less The Magic Flute (Tippett’s ultimate operatic model for this work) all of which hold established places on the stage. Modern opera-goers (in England, and elsewhere) can generally be assumed to have a wider acquaintance with the repertoire (in the theatre or on recordings) now than was the case at the work’s premiere in 1955, and so such parallels also would surely suggest to contemporary audiences telling comparisons and contrasts with The Midsummer Marriage, even if these were not consciously thought of by the composer, such as certain (deliberate?) points of contact with Die Frau ohne Schatten.

The interpolation of the orchestral Ritual Dances may seem to hold up the action, but audiences now will likely have some knowledge of, and even rapport with, the similar phenomenon in the French operatic tradition, especially in its Baroque form, where the particular practice of the terpsichorean interludes to propound (in a different artistic medium) the profound truths of Classical myth must stand as a telling archetype for Tippett’s own essentially mythological vision.  At a purely verbal level, it is intriguing that Acts One and Three both pointedly end with choral utterances of the word “gay” – outwardly and evidently in its now old-fashioned sense, but one wonders whether Tippett was already aware of, and meant to exploit, some sense of its modern usage, which would put an additional spin upon the opera’s exploration of psychologically liberated romantic relationships, in view of his own homosexuality and the opera’s composition well before legal reform in the UK on this issue in 1967.

Although billed as semi-staged, this was really little more than a concert performance. The soloists came and went as their parts dictated, but there was not much to distinguish their characters by way of costumes or mime, and some projection or display for the Ritual Dances would also have made this presentation a more dramatically enriching experience. That is a minor quibble, however, as the music was otherwise well served by Edward Gardner and his enthusiastic forces. He generally took a broad, symphonic approach with the London Philharmonic Orchestra who did justice to the colourful and imaginative textures of the score. If perhaps, at times, even more vigour might have been invested, Gardner certainly maintained a longer view of its lively rhythms and timbres. Although the quartal harmonies of some passages recall Bartók, for instance, Tippett’s orchestration and thematic development is less terse, and so Gardner’s greater lyricism served its purpose, whilst the LPO’s technical virtuosity paid dividends in the striking moments of ethereal tintinnabulations on the one hand, and the solid neo-Romantic textures on the other, the latter again almost seeming to invoke the likes of Richard Strauss and Wagner (Tippett’s musical style was always highly eclectic).

The singers also proved a cohesive but idiomatic group. Robert Murray gave a searching, strenuous account of the young hero, Mark, offset winningly by the seductive, crisp tone enunciated by Rachel Nicholls as his beloved Jenifer, the trial of whose relationship is principally the subject of the opera. As in The Magic Flute, that couple is paralleled by the more down to earth Papageno and Papagena pairing of Jack and Bella, rendered here effectively, though more earnestly than Mozart’s comic duo, by a soft-grained but ardent Toby Spence, and a flighty, alluring Jennifer France in her soubrettish vocalises.

Ashley Riches played the role of Jenifer’s disapproving father, King Fisher, with a certain growly comedy, somewhat cutting the character down to the dyspeptic bass parts of opera buffa rather than bringing out any particularly solemn authority in this re-imagination of a stock legendary figure. Rather, that was left to the oracular musical rhetoric of the priestly sages He-Ancient and She-Ancient, as vividly expressed here by Joshua Bloom and Susan Bickley. Claire Barnett-Jones brought a dark, smokey, other-worldly presence to the clairvoyante Sosostris’s music, summoned up mysteriously like Erda in The Ring.

The combined voices of the London Philharmonic Choir and ENO Chorus were on fine form, integrating with dramatic urgency, but with a particularly captivating lucidity on the part of the upper voices, almost creating a mystical dimension to the performance at times. Overall this was not only an exciting start to Gardner’s first season as the LPO’s new Principal Conductor, but also piqued interest in a work which surely deserves to be seen in all its dimensions on the stage.

Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, and available for 30 days thereafter on BBC iPlayer.

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