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Seen and Heard International Opera Review


Tippett, The Midsummer Marriage: Sir Andrew Davis, conductor, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Civic Opera House, Chicago, 26.11.2005 (HS)


My Italian-born friend who loves opera, let's call him Enrico to preserve his anonymity, has only recently come to appreciate what he calls modern opera. For him that's anything written in the 79 years since Puccini's death. He has come to enjoy Billy Budd and Of Mice and Men, modern operas in which, he says, music heightens and expands the dramatic story line, even if it's not music he chooses to play on his car's modern sound system.

He hated The Midsummer Marriage, Sir Michael Tippett's 1955 first foray into the operatic medium. Its story and its mishmash of symbolism confused him. The music put him to sleep. He hated the way dance takes over at key points. He had plenty of company. By Act III, I would estimate nearly half of the audience had fled. And this was a Saturday evening, so it's not that the opera's nearly four-hour running time was keeping them from a full night's sleep. Even Berg doesn't run 'em out of the house like that.

Enrico wasn't even entranced by Janice Watson's angelic singing as Jenifer, her pure soprano traversing the sometimes ecstatic high coloratura with ease. That was nice, he said, but there wasn't enough of it. I thought he would love the lushly romantic, highly listenable orchestral music. He didn't. Other Chicagoans told me they heard this music as dissonant and difficult.

Conductor Sir Andrew Davis, Lyric Opera's music director, lavished care and enthusiasm on the score, and drew great, sweeping waves of sound from the orchestra and, especially, the outsized 80-member chorus. So what was getting in the way? Why were people escaping into the night?

After some thought, I think it's this: Like Enrico, the audience was expecting a story they could follow, enhanced by the music. Tippett doesn't give them that. His self-written, turgid libretto puts high-falutin' phrases loaded with symbolism into the mouths of ordinary people. Wagner made up complex mythology, too, in the Ring of the Nibelungen, but he realized he needed four operas to spell it all out.

Tippett's libretto assumes knowledge of Midsummer Eve traditions, Celtic, Druid, Hindu and other myths. The story leans heavily on Mozart's Die Zauberflöte for the basic idea: two main characters (Mark and Jenifer) go through spiritual trials, contrasted with a more prosaic pair (Jack and Bella). Jenifer's father (King Fisher) is a sort of male Queen of the Night, at first seeming protective, later the villain. Robed figures (He-Ancient and She-Ancient) guard a temple, where a seer called Sorostris sings a long scene that pulls everything together at the end.  Instead of Mozart's Masonic elements, Tippett turns to Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream for some of the magical trappings, but at least in Mozart if you don't know the Masonic rituals you still get the basic idea clearly.

It's all a bit much to grasp, even after studying up. Good theater works on more than one level. It should at least hold your attention even if you don't get all the insider stuff. And that's where Midsummer Marriage falters. Obviously, it lost a significant part of its audience.

You can't blame the performers. Aside from Watson, who was radiant as Jenifer, Stacey Tappan infused Bella with vibrant humanity and delivered her sturdy music with flair. Joseph Kaiser played Mark as a confused cypher, mploying a pleasant if uninflected tenor. Kurt Streit had more heft in the other key tenor role, Jack. Peter Rose looked like a Prohibition-era mob boss as King Fisher, his bass voice showing some considerable fraying. Bass Kevin Langan was more sonorous as the He-Ancient, Meredith Arwady handling the She-Ancient's lines with less personality but impressive clarity. (The whole cast enunciated the words well, especially the chorus.) Catherine Wyn-Rogers, trapped inside a 10-foot-tall stick-figure witch's apparatus, delivered Sorostris' narration like a fine Erda.

Sir Peter Hall's production replaces Tippett's symbolic long staircase to the light and cave mouth of darkness with a cylindrical cage center stage. An elevator takes Jenifer up into the flies and Mark into a hole in the ground (they later reverse the destinations). The Ancients' temple looks like a large tepee. Tall rods drop from the flies to represent the forest, lit by projections of rustling leaves.

Paul Christiano, who has performed with the Joffrey Ballet, led an athletic group of dancers. Their ritual dances in the second and third acts of female animals chasing the males were small miracles of storytelling. If only the words carried as much drama.

Harvey Steiman






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