fri 19/07/2024

Prom 45: The Midsummer Marriage, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Davis | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 45: The Midsummer Marriage, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Davis

Prom 45: The Midsummer Marriage, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Davis

Tippett's music in all its odd glory, with blazing music but a dog's dinner of a libretto

Catherine Wyn-Rogers in the role of Madame SosostrisChris Christodoulou

Jeremy Paxman’s beard may have been a wonder and a talking point for five days, but Michael Tippett’s opera The Midsummer Marriage beats it by almost 60 years. Ecstatic, visionary, energetic music, yes indeed. But, oh, the composer’s libretto! The Magic Flute, T. S.

Eliot’s The Waste Land, English folk lore, Greek myths, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Carl Jung’s archetypes of the unconscious mind, wafts of wisdom from the East: all get crammed and overheated in the pot, cooked by someone with a soaring lyrical musical gift but only a talent for awkward verbiage when it comes to writing words. You try singing the phrase “sibylline misgivings”. 

It’s also a damned awkward piece to stage. Covent Garden’s original production in 1955 placed the story of the midsummer travails of the marriage-bound Mark and Jenifer in settings by sculptor Barbara Hepworth, described in the Times as like “Stonehenge reconditioned for the Festival of Britain”. The Proms, almost as courageously, attempted a semi-staging, but apart from the singers’ vivid costumes, ranging from sibylline clobber to lumberjack shirt, Kenneth Richardson’s stage direction chiefly underlined the absurdities of pushing characters through heaven, hell, and much vaguer places inside the Albert Hall’s Victorian pomp.

No attempt was made to simulate the hero and heroine’s clinching copulation session while enveloped in lotus petals

Formally attired, slow of gait on the auditorium steps, David Soar and Madeleine Shaw’s He-Ancient and She-Ancient looked for all the world like BAFTA presenters arriving onstage to present an award. Only Catherine Wyn-Jones, as soothsaying Madame Sosostris, really created a dramatic stir, first singing unseen from the gallery, then flinging arms wide by the distant organ. Luckily, no attempt was made to simulate the hero and heroine’s clinching copulation session while enveloped in lotus petals. 

But the music, the music! That’s what keeps this opera intoxicating, right from the opening’s wonderful punchy chords and scurrying strings, which establishes an energy level that dips occasionally but always zooms back. For Sir Andrew Davis, Friday’s Prom slotted into a week mostly devoted to conducting Britten’s Billy Budd at Glyndebourne (itself due for a Prom semi-staging on August 27). Two different worlds, there; but Davis’s mastery and devoted love of Tippett’s ecstatic counterpoint, lyrical surges and kaleidscopic colours came through loud and clear. So did the BBC Symphony Orchestra, whether the sound was heraldic red (the gorgeous brass section), heavenly blue (radiant violins), eerie silver (the magic celesta) or a dappled, numinous tapestry binding all worlds into one.

And the singing? A few up and downs, not least in audibility and the difficult matter of balance in the Hall’s giant soup tureen. As Mark, the casually dressed bridegroom, tenor Paul Groves ideally needed rounder tones and a smoother flow to match Tippett’s florid flights of melody, almost neo-baroque. Erin Wall’s bride Jenifer (nondescript blue jacket) began muted and indistinct, but bumped up the volume and glow once she emerged supernaturally transfigured in the Act One finale. 

Tippett’s libretto treats the love couple from the lower orders, secretary Bella and mechanic Jack, in a more user-friendly way. They have plainer words, bigger shafts of character. Ailish Tynan’s vocal gusto as Bella almost matched her bright secretary dresses, though feminists couldn’t be pleased by the character’s willingness to stay at home after marriage, cooking, washing clothes and bringing up baby. Meanwhile, Allan Clayton’s easy delivery entirely suited someone with hands slipped into the pockets of jeans and the hearty working man’s check shirt: another character locked into stereotypes one might have hoped the libertarian and former Trotskyist composer would have ditched.

A late arrival in the cast, David Wilson-Johnson was an asset too as the puffed-up businessman King Fisher, forceful in voice and gesture, though not when navigating Richardson’s toughest assignment – reaching Sosostris’s organ perch by pushing perilously right in front of the singing chorus. Not that the disruption, or anything else, stopped the flow from the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus, on top form throughout. As for Catherine Wyn-Rogers’ Sosostris, she looked, alas, better than she sounded: her great Act 3 aria, stately and luscious, needed more volume, more authority. Perhaps she should have been given a loudhailer. 

Still, bumps and all, everyone got to the end, the opera’s follies clear enough, but with its energy and ecstatic zing even clearer. “A magnificent evocation of post-war renewal,” Oliver Soden wrote in his programme note. Exactly so, even with those sibylline misgivings.

But the music, the music! That’s what keeps this opera intoxicating, right from the opening’s wonderful punchy chords and scurrying strings


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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I think the time for worrying about Tippett's libretto are over. It's no more ludicrous than 'The Magic Flute' and in fact it's ludicrousness is part of the point of it all, part of the comedy. We tend to worry too much about English librettos because we are used to listening to our opera in a foreign language or a user friendly translation. The Midsummer Marriage is a great work in every sense of the word and we should celebrate it's strengths.

Here. here......I have had to sing and shout many more ridiculous things than this libretto over the years.... Tippett's music is so strong in its depth and poetic conviction. It is here to stay and we should relish that fact.

The abstruse libretto is unfortunately thrown in stark relief when performed in concert. Less so, in the powerful staging i saw at the ROH in 2005. However, the glories of the score are also more apparent than ever. Music of rare vision and beauty. I'm longing to hear it again.

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