sat 13/07/2024

The Midsummer Marriage, LPO, Gardner, RFH review – Tippett’s cornucopia shines in fits and starts | reviews, news & interviews

The Midsummer Marriage, LPO, Gardner, RFH review – Tippett’s cornucopia shines in fits and starts

The Midsummer Marriage, LPO, Gardner, RFH review – Tippett’s cornucopia shines in fits and starts

The central act is pure genius, but undramatic flaws glare in a naked concert performance

Bella (Jennifer France) does her makeup in the shadow of the wood, while Jack (Toby Spence) helps and Edward Gardner conductsAll images by Mark Allan

British opera’s attempted answer to The Magic Flute, and its presentation as the opening gambit of Edward Gardner’s eminent position as principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, leave me queasily ambivalent.

After all the smoke and lighting of the LPO’s online series, there’s barely a hint of theatricality in this plain concert performance, with the only concession to lighting the constant red on the Royal Festival Hall organ: is it not an opera but a choral symphony with eight soloists? Then you remember what wonders good directors and designers have achieved with The Midsummer Marriage on stage, and realise that Tippett’s music, for all its stand-alone originality, really needs them. And was what we saw and heard in part the “vision” of the LPO’s former CEO, who wrote of how Brexit would offer bright opportunities for his orchestra? You have to wonder when the conductor and seven of the eight soloists are English born, with very little hint across the board of the diversity which ought to be part of an orchestra’s new-era statement.

But no: this was Gardner’s will for his new beginning (the conductor last night pictured below), giving a strong role to the combined London Philharmonic and English National Opera choruses (he was music director at ENO for a decade). The cast, though flawed, was truly international in quality; so is the music, for all its roots in an English mythology that is as unprovincial as the art of Paul Nash, Eric Ravilious and John Piper, or the sculpture of Elisabeth Frink and Barbara Hepworth, whose designs for the 1955 Royal Opera premiere were not deemed a success. Nor was Tippett’s own libretto, and much as one wants to fight against received wisdom, its symbolic and mythic platitudes, drawn from Tippett’s reading of Jung, invoking T S Eliot and, at the end, gauchely quoting Yeats, still stick in the craw too often. Edward Gardner conducting The Midsummer MarriageWhat really took me aback, after I’d come to love the score, was its thick pastiness in swathes of Act One: the rhythmic dynamism, with all those dancing, lopsided metre changes, kicks off thrillingly and keeps the presentation of the midsummer temple and its celebrants/initiates afloat, but the orchestration felt often too blockish and too loud. Here we were with a full orchestra and chorus after 18 months of paring-back, and yet half of each would have kept it all more buoyant and focused. The betrothed couple, Mark too earthly and Jenifer too airy fairy, like the two couples presented in Act One of Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, remain abstractions throughout (Strauss, incidentally, bewailed the lack of characters with "red corpuscles", and at an earlier point in his collaboration with Hugo von Hofmannthal warned against ideas that weren't embodied in operatic action). The tenor part keeps going way too low for comfort, the soprano must have coloratura abilities and yet strength to drive against the thicker wadges, especially in the crazy copulatory Fire Dance of Act Three. Robert Murray and Rachel Nicholls could only hope to hit half the mark and it wasn’t their fault if the impact, ultimately was minimal.

The real success of the evening among the soloists belonged to the subsidiary couple, mechanic Jack and secretary Bella – a Papageno and Papagena who actually change before our eyes, unlike the rest of the dramatis personae. It’s interesting that though Bella’s coy dream of domestic wifery and feminine allure in Act Two seems so 1950s, her and Jack’s Act Two music is also other-worldly and ravishing around their retreats “into the shadow of the wood” while the selectively scored magic of seasonal animal pursuits – female predating upon male – held us spellbound in the first three “Ritual Dances”.Claire Barnett-Jones and Ashley RichesToby Spence, freed from heldentenorish push which could also make him a good Mark, was all straightforward charm and candour; Jennifer France, stage animal with a lighter-soprano voice that still cuts a swathe, could probably be a good Jenifer with one “n” too, but though the part isn’t intrinsically funny, she was the only one to bring character-led movement to life, crossing the podium from one set of music stands to question the ancient guardians of the temple (Joshua Bloom and Susan Bickley, also personable).

There was a chance lost here to have fresh young singers straight out of music college as the two pairs of lovers, set against experienced old-timers in the other roles (that worked so well in the Aldeburgh staging of Britten’s Owen Wingrave). Ashley Riches started without the authority of Jenifer’s bullish businessman dad King Fisher, though he was impressive in Act Three (just how non-human the libretto is becomes risibly apparent when Jenifer, post-consummation, declares “I could love all – even my father had he lived,” and Mark responds “Mourn no stubborn father, but receive the ring”). The bully’s summoning of veiled creature Sosostris brings handsome hues from the lower orchestra and mezzo/contralto Claire Barnett-Jones (pictured above with Riches and Gardner)– clearly Wagner’s Erda appearing to Wotan is the model, not Elgar’s Angel to Gerontius, pace the programme note – but you feel King Fisher really needs to cut her off when she gets mired in heavy reflections; Tippett, as so often, labours too much of a good thing. Line-up for The Midsummer Marriage at the Royal Festival HallHis biggest flop, surely, is not to fade with the birdsong of a new dawn but to write a big, Fidelio-style peroration for chorus – who should, incidentally, have been clad in flowery attire from the start – and ever-frantic orchestra making Yeats sound clumsy out of context (“All things fall and are built again/And those that build them again are gay”). We were asked, again in the well-written but uncritical programme note, to receive this as the big sentiment of a “post-COVID season” (don’t speak too soon). But it drove me away from involvement again. There’s far too much uniquely brilliant and fascinating music in The Midsummer Marriage for the evening to fail, and Gardner, from a perfunctory if precise start, ignited sparks in the second and third acts, especially from the chorus. That much, at least, will arise in the memory from the ruins of a flawed monument.

Though the part of Bella isn’t intrinsically funny, Jennifer France was the only soloist to bring character-led movement to life


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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Erda is of course an influence on Sosostris (as are figures from Valery, Eliot and Mozart); Elgar - the Angel’s Farewell from Gerontius - is clearly present in the section of her aria that begins ‘You who consult me…’. The Gerontius-Sosostris links are explored in an essay by Christopher Mark in the Cambridge Companion to MT.

It's a brighter stretch of her solo, but I'm not hearing it. More Hindemith, if anyone. Which bars of the Angel's Farewell exactly?

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