I first encountered Tippett’s third opera The Knot Garden during its second run of performances at Covent Garden in the early 1970s. The initial impression it made on me was of a rather uneven score. The mythic considerations which had underlain his earlier operas The Midsummer Marriage and King Priam
had been reduced down to a contemporary suburban milieu. The composer’s own text produced a fair share of unintentional humour – as in lines such as “Who in hell are you?” or “Come, I never kissed a man before” both declaimed by Raimund Herincx with unmerciful clarity – which produced embarrassed giggles from the audience. Peter Hall’s production was perfectly judged, or so it seemed to me, and the stage designs by Tim O’Brien were beautifully atmospheric. Apart from Josephine Barstow’s searing delivery of her Act One aria, the music seemed to hang fire until around the middle of Act Two where Mel’s delivery of a line from “We shall overcome” (“words are forced from him” says the libretto) and Flora’s unexpected singing of Schubert’s In grün will ich mich kleiden seemed suddenly to catch the attention. After this, as if to prove that Tippett’s emotional engagement with his characters did not wholly depend on borrowed melodies, the riches of the score came thick and fast, with Dov’s songs (later extracted for concert performance) and Thea’s aria of reconciliation in particular bringing musical rewards of the first order.
Listening later to the LP release of the opera which is reissued here, the impression of unevenness in the music and text remained. This was despite performances from the singers that were beyond praise. Unfortunately Tippett’s later operas The Ice Break and New Year again contained a juxtaposition of musical riches and passages of frank - and perhaps intentional - banality. A later production of The Knot Garden which I encountered from a television relay reduced the stage setting to a hall full of very basic chairs. This only served to throw the weaker passages into stronger relief; nor was the singing cast comparable with that of the original Covent Garden performances. The LPs were subsequently transferred to a set of Philips CDs, and the set re-mastered here by Presto Classical derives from an even later reissue by Decca. There have been no other audio recordings of the opera, and given the clear virtues of this one this is perhaps not altogether surprising.
Longer acquaintance with the score, although not altogether dispelling the sense of golden nuggets surrounded by passages of dross, have rendered the latter more enticing and approachable. This reissue, which comes complete with an extensive booklet note by Meirion Bowen and the English text (needed in places), certainly makes out the best possible case for the music. Josephine Barstow effectively established her reputation with her assumption of the role of the ‘freedom fighter’ Denise. Jill Gomez makes effective use of her smaller voice to characterise the innocent and disturbed adolescent Flora. Yvonne Minton brings a proper sense of gravitas to the part of the motherly Thea although the passage in Act Two where she attacks her husband with a whip remains embarrassing. As that husband, Raimund Herincx does what he can with a rather unsympathetic role which reminds the listener closely of the boorish character of King Fisher in The Midsummer Marriage. The dry-voiced Thomas Hemsley sounds suitably analytical as the psychiatrist Mangus who sets the mythological background of The Tempest into motion. Robert Tear remains fey and feckless as the caricatured effeminate homosexual sporting purple underpants in the first part of the opera. That said, he plumbs hidden depths with compassion and understanding as the character develops, singing his songs with simple emotion … and with a much more lyrical line than Nigel Robson on a long-deleted Collins Classics recording of the Songs for Dov conducted by the composer (reissued on EMI Classics)
. Thomas Carey is rather plainer as his black lover Mel, but has a nobility of voice which shines through his utterances. The orchestra under Davis obviously relish the music - including the electric guitar - and the studio recording made some time after the initial stage performances has all the warmth and clarity that the listener could desire as well as a sense of dramatic engagement.
The first CD release coupled The Knot Garden, which is a short opera, with Sir Colin Davis’s recording of Tippett’s much earlier oratorio A child of our time. The latter has now been reissued by Presto Classical as a CD in its own right, which I reviewed
a few months ago. That performance boasts some excellent solo singers, but Davis is somewhat brisk with the music in a manner which Tippett demonstrated in his own recorded is not necessary for dramatic impact. This later CD set couples the opera with a subsequent Tippett work, the Fourth Symphony in its première recording under the baton of Sir Georg Solti who commissioned the score for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Unfortunately we have now consequently lost the original coupling for the symphony in the shape of Tippett’s Byzantium
, which as another vocal work might have been regarded as a better companion for the opera – especially as the symphony was included in the complete boxes of Tippett’s symphonic works which admirers of the composer will presumably already possess, either in Hickox’s readings for Chandos or in the compendium originally issued by Decca
-Universal. There is also a recording by Tippett himself, originally issued as a free cover-mounted CD for BBC Music Magazine but now issued by NMC
. Solti’s reading has the cachet of recording the first performances of the work, but I must admit to preferring the later interpretations of Richard Hickox and the composer himself which bind the music - with its controversial ‘breathing’ tape - more closely together as a symphonic unit.
As a whole, Tippett’s operas have not been altogether lucky on record. The Midsummer Marriage was recorded by Sir Colin Davis for Philips (now reissued on Lyrita: review review
) but he made cuts in the score to mirror the Covent Garden revival in the late 1960s. Recent hearings of the opera without these makes one long for a truly complete recording. The transcript of the original 1955 performances under Sir John Pritchard, despite a magnificent cast, suffer from pretty abominable sound and annoying spoken commentaries. King Priam and The Ice Break are represented by thoroughly worthy performances and recordings conducted by David Atherton but it would be good to hear the original casts in these works - both were broadcast by the BBC - and a version in which the solo violin which accompanies Andromache’s Act Three aria in King Priam is played by the full violin section as indicated in the score; the reduction was clearly made for purely practical reasons, since the passages in question are extremely difficult to co-ordinate. What we need even more is a complete recording of Tippett’s last opera New Year, represented on disc only by a suite extracted by the composer and recorded by Hickox. The Glyndebourne production was televised and really should be issued on DVD.
One minor cavil: as in the previous CD issue, Act Three of the opera is split across discs. This was originally necessary to accommodate the coupling of the longer duration of A child of our time, but should surely have been corrected once the shorter symphony made it possible to contain the whole of Act Three on the second disc. Those interested in British opera in the twentieth century should obviously own this recording, which is otherwise only currently obtainable as part of a mammoth 15 CD box set of Davis’s recordings for Philips. As such this reissue is self-recommending.
Paul Corfield Godfrey