Control and conflict are at the heart of Michael Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage. On the more obvious level, the composer (who acted as his own librettist) sets up two opposing pairs of lovers – Mark and Jenifer, the supernatural, ‘marvellous’, ‘royal’ couple, versus Jack (a mechanic) and Bella (a secretary), the natural, ‘everyday’ lovers. Their two worlds interact, and each couple consists of a tenor and a soprano, so there are similarities. Whereas the ‘marvellous’ couple can see everything, however, the earthly pair can only access the ‘natural’ world.
Perhaps even more interesting is the conflict between Tippett’s control of libretto and score on the one hand, and the way in which the work sometimes takes control of him on the other. He lards on the references to the great canonic operas in an attempt to maintain a grip on the form of the work (not to mention to help the work in its bid for a place in that canon).
In his book Moving into Aquarius, Tippett links his work to opera buffa, ‘some Verdi and Puccini techniques’ (as if the two can be so easily grouped together), Wagner, Don Giovanni, and The Magic Flute, which is most obviously referenced in The Midsummer Marriage (for further details on contexts for the work I recommend Christopher Wintle‘s elegant programme note). All well and good; we know from Strauss and Britten how building on the achievements of nineteenth-century opera in particular can produce new wonders.
Yet you can’t write an ‘opera of operas’ quite as simply as that, especially when it results in an inheritance of the most problematic elements such as a massive Puccinian orchestration (the biggest challenge for the singers). And sometimes I wish he would follow his observation about the succinctness of Dido’s Lament by Purcell, for example, by concentrating his own characters a little more tightly on the job at hand.
There are almost hints of Stravinsky’s miraculous dream that resulted in The Rite of Spring in Tippett’s statement about his inspiration for the work: ‘I had an illumination – I saw a stage picture (as opposed to a musical sound)’. In both cases, the composer tries to make out that the idea controls him, while simultaneously demonstrating the way he imposes his will onto the work (which ought to be the act of a master craftsman, after all). And in both cases, we are left wondering about the ‘meaning’ of the work: do we understand the ‘idea’ as controlling the whole (as Stravinsky’s later claim to be ‘the vessel through which the Rite passed’ would suggest), or is the composer trying to disguise his manipulative presence (which Tippett indicates by his discussion of earlier operas)?
I mention these issues not to have a go at Tippett, but rather to highlight the problems of staging his opera. The challenge to the conductor of The Midsummer Marriage is enormous. He has to overcome a score of almost Wagnerian dimensions. This frequently means that the orchestra is so huge and loud most of the time that it requires fine-tuning and sensitive accompaniment to avoid drowning out the singers.
Richard Hickox rises to the challenge admirably for this revival of Graham Vick‘s 1996 production for the Royal Opera. Such sensitive playing and conducting is to be savoured. The chorus responded to the vibrancy of the sparkling production, singing their hearts out in the concertati of Acts I and III, and on the whole, the soloists were similarly spirited.
Lancastrian soprano Amanda Roocroft and German tenor Will Hartmann made role debuts as Jenifer and Mark. Jenifer is a big part for her, but Roocroft did an admirable job, and she was far more engaged in the drama than she sometimes is. Hartmann’s English was impressively clear, and he made a confidant entrance in Act I; later his vocal reserves seemed to have been overtaxed to some extent.
After an impressive Wanderer in Siegfried last month, John Tomlinson gave an even more dominating performance as King Fisher. If only ENO could regularly find singers with such excellent English diction! Tomlinson inhabited the role with apparent enthusiasm, showing the character’s jealousy of Mark, his power-drunk challenge to the Ancients, and his close guarding of his daughter Jenifer, with equal conviction.
The secondary lovers were also played by singers making role debuts. Canadian tenor Gordon Gietz was a lyrical Jack, but the vocal revelation of the evening for me was Cora Burggraaf as Bella. She was singing at the House for the first time, and was so perfect a soubrette that I hope we shall someday get the chance to hear her sing Zdenka in Strauss’ Arabella.
Sosostris was sung by Russian mezzo-soprano Elena Manistina, another Royal Opera House debutante. She made the most of a role which requires her to sing from behind a gauze for much of the time. And she had a wonderful rich tone, secure in the lower register as few mezzos are nowadays (if only they’d hired her for the new Un ballo in maschera).
As the He-Ancient and She-Ancient, Brindley Sherratt and Diana Montague were both impressive, adding much-needed gravitas to these brief but crucial roles.
The production itself is in many ways dreamy. Graham Vick’s direction is detailed without being fussy, entering into both the bizarre Magic Flute-ish mysticism and the comedy of the secondary characters with great style. Designer Paul Brown‘s sets are marvellously elegant; the stage isn’t cluttered, yet all the big moments carry great spectacle. I wasn’t too keen on Ron Howell‘s choreography for the Ritual Dances, which were played with a velvet sheen by the orchestra; to me the dancing was repetitive and pretentious, but it could be a matter of taste I suppose.
This is the third twentieth-century opera of the ROH season so far, and the unusual variety of the programming should be grabbed by both hands; it was sad to see empty seats on the opening night. Try to ignore the image we have inherited of Tippett as an inaccessible, over-intellectual composer, and instead, go and buy a bargain-priced ticket (from £4-£85) for this visceral piece of entertainment.