Tippett The Knot Garden

The Knot Garden [Libretto by the composer; performed in Meirion Bowen’s chamber scoring]

Faber – Gwion Thomas
Thea – Lucy Schaufer
Flora – Elizabeth Watts
Denise – Helen Field
Mel – Rodney Clarke
Dov – Christopher Lemmings
Mangus – Jeremy Huw Williams

Music Theatre Wales Ensemble
Michael Rafferty

Director – Michael McCarthy
Designers – Jane and Louise Wilson

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 3 May, 2005
Venue: Linbury Studio Theatre at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

“The Knot Garden” was composed in 1970 and is dramatically very dated. The use of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” as a play within a play, characters who are unable to communicate properly via ideas or emotion and an audience who can only get guess at the background to the events on stage was very trendy in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, but now looks rather quaint. While the big final chorus, “If for a timid moment we submit to love”, is musically glorious its emotional message is cringe inducing. In addition while the use of a same-sex couple on an operatic stage was sensational in 1970, the gay characters are little more than stereotypes. Tippett, like Britten, seemed to be incapable as a gay man of creating multi-faceted positive models. Mel appears as Ariel and both physically and vocally he is often portrayed as a screaming queen, while Dov is a macho black bisexual Caliban who is described as a “moron”!

As to this production, it was quite clear when overhearing conversations in the interval that many of the audience had come to see the work of Jane and Louise Wilson as opposed to listen to the music. Their design concept was very simple – a large video screen on top of two interlocking platforms, on which the cast could climb. Diagonally across the back, but no more than 7 metres from the front of the stage there were two movable rectangular screens and on the left there was a wicker chest. These screens offered a visual commentary on the emotional state of the characters via pictures of sixties concrete jungles, decaying housing, tropical plants, Kew Garden, an empty House of Commons and 3D lighting effects. I found this visually arresting, but I’m not sure any of the images actually influenced the way I perceived the characters or their interaction. The characters themselves often used stylised movement, which contrasted very effectively with the static nature of the big ensemble pieces in the first and last acts.

Musically the production was excellent, the chamber ensemble was immaculate and Michael Rafferty punched home rhythms while giving Tippett’s expansive and memorable melodies time to breathe. There was a problem with instrumental balance in that the strings sometimes sounded weak, but that may have been inevitable in a small hall full of hard surfaces. Amongst the principals Elizabeth Watts’s Flora was superb, effortlessly encompassing the references to the “Bell Song” from “Lakmé” and other bel canto operas, while Helen Field made the most of her opening scene with its references to “Tristan und Isolde” and “Die Zauberflöte. Indeed, every member of the cast sang with power and precision and presented very strong characterisations; however, Jeremy Huw Williams’s Mangus was under-powered, his intonation was suspect and there was a prominent beat in the tone.

This is a production well worth going to see and hear – it’s on tour – and Tippett’s music does make up for any dramatic failings. Let’s face it: you could say that about 99 percent of the operatic repertoire!

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