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Seen and Heard Opera Review
Tippett, The Midsummer Marriage: soloists, orchestra and chorus of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden / Richard Hickox, conductor, ROH, 31.10.2005 (ED)
Mark: Will Hartmann
Jenifer: Amanda Roocroft
King Fisher: John Tomlinson
Bella: Cora Burggraaf
Jack: Gordon Gietz
Sosostris: Elena Manistina
He-Ancient: Brindley Sherratt
She-Ancient: Diana Montague
Conductor: Richard Hickox
Director: Graham Vick
Designs: Paul Brown
Lighting: Wolfgang Göbbel
Movement: Ron Howell
Tippett does not strike me as a ‘natural’ opera composer. Of course, it’s about the most demanding task a composer can take on, and operatic history is littered with works from which at most a few numbers are occasionally plucked. The centenary of his birth and the fiftieth anniversary of this opera’s premiere (at the Royal Opera House) are ample reason however to give the work another outing – the last in this production being 1996, when Tippett was still very much with us.
Of all Tippett’s operas it is the most lyrical and also a true reflection of the man and his influences in its eclectic nature. Purcell, Handel, Beethoven, Berg, Messiaen and Mahler, amongst others, vie for presence in various guises, whereas Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte is the most striking parallel in plot and structure terms. Social comment and a wide gamut of world views from Jungian theory to Freemasonry all play upon the text. In taking on the libretto-writing too Tippett set himself a doubly demanding task. Very few bring off both entirely successfully, and the work’s occasional textual difficulties cannot be denied.
All of which indicates perceptible problems in the work itself that results in a lack of stylistic cohesion, although there is a sometimes veiled purpose within the work’s structure. Whilst there are passages of powerfully driven musical energy (the tone-poem like Ritual Dances) and sublime lyrical beauty that often feature finely drawn instrumental lines and textures (the lead up to and the scene with Sosostris in Act III), much of the rest lacks a sense of drama to move it forward. Act I’s static (almost Monteverdian?) quality proclaimed this most – just when proclamations of love should have driven the action on.
The production partially fell victim to casting too to make it not quite the ‘Marriage made in heaven’ the Royal Opera proclaims the evening to be. Not unusually diction took its fair share of the blame, with some of the worst offenders being native singers. Cora Burggraaf gave an object lesson in linguistic clarity and in ample tone too. Elena Manistina’s heavily veiled Sosostris brought a mix of Russian intonation and Erda-like shades, which at times Diana Montague seemed on the verge of projecting as the She-Ancient. Although strongly acted and his words clearly projected John Tomlinson’s tone was dreadfully thin in places – and at times when the drama often called for it most – and it’s remarkable how alike in character all his assumptions seem these days. Amanda Roocroft made a brave stab at the difficult passagework that occasionally plagues the role of Jenifer, none of which lay easily in the voice for her. Otherwise she possessed all the role could require in terms of looks, tone and character. Will Hartmann’s eagerly-acted Mark was apt to sacrifice tone for emotion as the work progressed; Gordon Gietz’s Jack less so, giving perhaps the most rounded performance in all. Tippett’s problematic handling of choral forces, to my mind a musical force he never successfully grasped, is a feature too – and all too often laid out forte across already dense orchestral textures or solo lines.
For all that there are considerable factors that give ample rewards throughout. The first is Richard Hickox’s conducting, which makes the most of dramatic possibilities and delivers the score in a forthright, knowing and uncompromising manner, though this can on occasion betray langueurs in the writing. The orchestra play with conviction and deliver the Ritual Dances, undoubtedly and deservedly the score’s highlight, with particular panache. Ron Howell’s choreography brings out the ritual with a knowing nod from today to yester-year (The Rite of Spring perhaps leaves its mark here). Graham Vick’s production generally is mercifully unfussy – and uses along the way effective devices such as rotating globes and staircases to assist or gradually reveal the action without imposing its own order too heavily upon proceedings.
If by the end I felt that somehow enough had been done to turn a potentially long night’s portrayal of Midsummer Day into a genuinely enjoyable and uplifting experience, it was due to the qualities of Acts II and III that can be distinguished by one fact – the employment of purely orchestral music. Which left me contemplating: is an opera really opera if it is most successful without words? It’s not natural opera at any rate.
Photogarphs © Bill Cooper, October 2005