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Tippett's Midsummer Marriage

Tippett, Midsummer Marriage, Covent Garden, 2005As you know, it's a Sir Michael Tippett year. The Royal Opera House at Covent Garden revived a 1996 production of Tippett's opera The Midsummer Marriage, which premiered on October 31 and ends on November 18. The first review I found was by Edward Seckerson (No winners in the mating game, November 2) for The Independent:

Fifty years is a long time in the life of some operas. In the case of The Midsummer Marriage, it's an eternity. Since its premiere at the Royal Opera half a century ago, the perception of what an opera is or should be has shifted. In the past decade, it's been a seismic shift. So we really have to ask ourselves why, in the centenary year of Tippett's birth, his most celebrated opera should be far from full on its opening night and - more significantly - even less full at the start of its final act. Far from embracing it, people are walking away from it. Why? Because, as opera, The Midsummer Marriage has insurmountable problems. It might even be unstageable. It's hard - no, impossible - to reconcile Tippett's verdant, effusive and often ravishing score to the proto-new age tosh of his libretto. It really is a stinker: dense, obtuse, unsingable nonsense. There's even a line saying: "Now is this nonsense at its noon." Too right.
Second, there is Andrew Clark (The Midsummer Marriage, Royal Opera House, November 3), who was not as negative for the London Financial Times:
Never has the meaning of The Midsummer Marriage, so woefully misunderstood at its premiere 50 years ago, been more obvious. Here is Tippett’s Jungian inspiration writ large. We all have to discover and confront our shadow side before we can make the true marriage of innocence and experience that leads to spiritual maturity. The production’s symbolic clarity pays further dividends in Paul Brown’s set, in which a giant scroll enclosing the “marvellous” side of life is pierced by the “everyday”. It underlines the inspiration Tippett drew from Greek drama, religion and theatre, pointing up Wagnerian parallels and the orgiastic fervour of his music.
Anthony Holden added to the chorus of nays (A marriage hits the rocks, November 6) for The Observer:
For its revival, to mark the centenary of Tippett's birth, Covent Garden has brought back Graham Vick to revise and develop his 1996 staging, alongside designer Paul Brown and choreographer Ron Howell. It is the latter who makes the most memorable contribution, with The Ritual Dances that constitute most of the second act suiting the manic mood of Tippett's scoring to, well, yes, to a fortissimo. The rest is as much of a muddle as the work itself. A chorus of superannuated hippies keeps pouring on and off the stage, eventually indulging in a cringe-making, middle-aged orgy, while the central characters go through a series of trials all too clearly echoing Mozart's Magic Flute. Mix Eliot and Auden, Yeats and Fry, Shaw and Shakespeare into Frazer's Golden Bough, leaven with a dash of Verdi and Wagner, and allow four hours to stew without ever coming to the boil.
Didn't anyone like it? The answer is no, at least not Anna Picard (Post-war marriage. It went like this?, November 6), who piled on in The Independent:
But for some radiant writing in the Ritual Dances, during which the male dancers hang themselves by their ties, this fitful filibustering continues for four hours. Few of Monday night's sparse audience remained to see the sphere that dominates Paul Brown's designs unfold into a lotus flower. But short of bolting the doors, I don't see how they could have been made to stay. Diluted Magritte sits ill with imagery commonly seen on packets of incense sticks. And despite some highly disciplined playing from the orchestra under Richard Hickox, The Midsummer Marriage is not musically successful enough to distract from its theatrical incoherence.
Lyric Opera of Chicago will premiere its new production of Tippett's nutty opera this weekend, as previewed by Wynne Delacoma for the Chicago Sun-Times. The Lyric has already replaced the tenor lead, and director Peter Hall has had to withdraw for health reasons. I think Chicago readers should prepare for their own bloodletting.

As I predicted, it ain't pretty in Chicago either.


Princess Alpenrose said...

Sounds like a real stinker.

I think I remember reading that Porgy & Bess bombed and only got a handful of performances, at the outset. But thereafter it's gone on to become a classic.

Charles you would know this: Have there been any other real stinkers in history, ones that really, well and truly bombed but then went on to become well-liked and part of the standard opera rep?

(Maybe Garth has a few, as well?)

Garth Trinkl said...

Thanks for the roundup of critical opinion of the London production, Charles. We'll see about the Chicago Lyric critical and public response... I can't really recall how the San Francisco and New York City Opera productions, within the past fifteen or so years, were received. I thought that some American critics liked much of the music, if not the libretto (or productions?).

Of course, I assume you and other readers know that Tippett asked T.S. Eliot to collaborate with him on the libretto, but that Eliot told Tippett to prepare one himself. No doubt, a loss to operatic history?

Garth Trinkl said...

Now, Andrea, you go out and listen to a recording of this largely neo-romantic (and neo-classical?) work before assuming it to be a "real stinker". I do not believe that "real stinkers" are regularly revived and interpreted by the world's leading opera houses -- including Santa Fe, SF, NYCO, ENO and RCG, and the Chicago Lyric.

(Other readers may want to investigate the video of Tippett's "King Priam". I assume its available on DVD now. It is a brilliant video production of the work.)

Princess Alpenrose said...

I didn't say it was a real stinker! I'm sorry, Garth, if you misunderstood me. I said I thought it "sounded like a real stinker", meaning that the way I read Charles' review was as saying many people who had heard it thought it was.

Maybe it was my misunderstanding. Is it the *just the production* that all those people didn't like?

Please help me out here, I'm trying to understand ...

Charles T. Downey said...

As I read it, most of the critics (and many in the audience, who walked out) were turned off by the production. The opera itself, however, is long and not easy to digest either. Much of the problem -- here, I agree with you, Garth -- is Tippett's libretto. This is one of those great "What if?" cases: would Tippett-Eliot have been as great a team as Stravinsky-Auden or Britten-Crozier-Forster? If only we had had the chance to find out. In spite of having had a few revivals (more than many 20th-century operas get, to be sure), I think this opera is still something of an oddity.

It is certainly not in the category of works that initially bombed and then became perennial favorites. For examples of that, Andrea, look no further than Bellini's Norma, whose premiere at La Scala the composer described with the words "fiasco, fiasco, solenne fiasco." Who can predict that unreliable mixture of chemistry that occurs when an audience watches a new work or even an old work in new clothing?

Garth Trinkl said...

Henry, I was hoping you'd check in on this matter. You bring up two points that were on my mind: the issue of whether Tippett was an outstanding (musical) composer, and the matter of King Priam being an extraordinarily powerful piece of music theater. I also recalled last night that one of the critics of the SF or NYCO Midsummer productions said that he (or she) had wished that it had been given in a German translation (I think) so that the music sans words could be focused upon. (I had planned to catch the NYCO production, but at the last minute could not. I remember the critics not liking all the world religions/cultic symbolism in the sets.)

As to the dance, it must be recalled that in the 1950s, rebirth and ritual were on alot of composers minds. This was after the writings of Busoni and Artaud (and before Birtwistle). I can't quite recall, but isn't the Bliss: The Olympians also an attempt at a
(pseudo?) ritualistic opera? (This was also the age of C. Orff.)

I think that producers DO want one Tippett opera to succeed, but they are saddled with products that while incorporating contemporary themes are weighed down by less than professional libretti (or scores?). Remember also, as pointed out at the end of the Chicago newspaper preview, that Tippett had roots in "folk" opera, and that Child of Our Time was a world-wide hit.

Charles, I also think that producers are somewhat hoping (against odds?) that Midsummer will be reveiled over time to be an at first unknown masterpiece like Hofmannstahl-Strauss Die Frau ohne Schatten, which was heavily criticized for its "murky" (to some) libretto. Also, as well as T.S. Eliot, there must have been professional librettists in Tippett's circle.

Will world audiences, over time, only be left with Tippett's Child of Our Time, The Mask of Time, and King Priam?

Princess Alpenrose said...

Uh, well hate to break it to those of you who predicted bloodletting in Chicago, but at least one Chicagoan thinks rather highly of it.

(You can find her on my blog's sidebar as "Canadienne".)

Is it a different production? Hmmmm... Is it possible that the Chicago version is somehow more effective, more convincing?

Charles T. Downey said...

Andrea: Yes, it's a different production. I will be glad if my prediction turns out to be wrong.

Charles T. Downey said...

To clarify, the assessment Andrea mentions, by Canadienne, is written by a singer who is somehow involved with the production and saw the dress rehearsal. No telling how predictive that will be of the reaction of a public audience and critics.