The Knot Garden [Libretto by the composer; performed in the original scoring]
Faber Christopher Purves
Thea Karen Cargill
Flora Ailish Tynan
Denise Rachel Hynes
Mel Roderick Williams
Dov James Gilchrist
Mangus Alan Opie
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sir Andrew Davis
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 14 May, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
There has already been speculation as to why “The Knot Garden” has received several performances (not least by Music Theatre Wales) when none of Michael Tippett’s ‘other operas’ – which euphemism usually means “The Midsummer Marriage”! – seem destined to receive UK productions this centenary year. Yet the composer considered its synthesis of words and music (hence sight and sound) unequalled in his operatic output as a whole, while the opera’s central theme – that of individuals alienated both from themselves and each other, resolving their inner and outer differences by means of role-play – has dated only in that its premise is so widely applicable today as to be hardly worth remarking upon.
Not that the characters themselves are overtly sympathetic or even necessarily of interest beyond exhibiting the archetypal qualities Tippett intends, but their interplay over three formally diverse yet rigorously unified acts (playing for 85 minutes) has an emotional charge that, allied to the intrinsic quality of the music, carries all before it. Music Theatre Wales had tackled the difficulties of scenic compression, and the composed ‘dissolves’ between scenes, with video backdrops which conveyed theclaustrophobia of the ‘urban walled garden’ setting, if not really its labyrinth-like enfolding of the characters – whose search for an ‘escape’ increasingly overrides the minutiae of their encounters.
From this perspective, the semi-staging by Kenneth Richardson of this BBC performance – bringing protagonists together at the front of the platform, and ensuring sufficient space for their various confrontations and reconciliation – served the opera well, as did the singers themselves. Best were Karen Cargill’s Thea – her independence only gradually admitting of an overt self-absorption; Ailish Tynan’s Flora – a convincing impression of an adolescent belatedly finding the courage to see beyond the ‘comfort zone’ of her insecurities; and Alan Opie’s Mangus – as much the master of ceremonies as an analyst, while keeping everyone in check with his flashes of wisdom and underlying humanity (perhaps Tippett saw something of himself in this figure, much though he decried any ‘guru’ status).
A secure, sympathetic Dov (delivering his Act Two aria with aching sincerity), James Gilchrist was often upstaged in the encounters with his sometime partner Mel – whose forlorn mindset was palpably conveyed by Roderick Williams. Christopher Purves was always dependable if not especially distinctive as Faber, while Rachel Hynes seemed curiously aloof as Denise – for all that she took on the image of a maimed freedom fighter with eloquence. Andrew Davis has long been unstinting in his advocacy for Tippett, and encouraged the BBCSO to render the music with the vibrancy yet sensitivity it demands.
Musically and lyrically, “The Knot Garden” continues to impress and repel on the part of its respective admirers and detractors. Yes, it is chock-full of 1960s’ phrases – but better that, surely, than the penny-plain frigidity that often seems to pass muster for ‘good writing’ in the librettos that Myfanwy Piper was writing for Britten during this period. Moreover, the composer’s text always serves his musical imagination assuredly – and, in its utilising of the starkness of Tippett’s music from earlier in the decade to throw into relief the lyricism that informs his thinking at all stages, not to mention the fluency with which the jazz and blues idioms are drawn upon for their melodic inflection and harmonic acerbity. It may be a while before this creation again claims the attention: best to enjoy it for what it is – an opera that reflects the issues of its own time as surely as it establishes a relevancy in our own.