PROM 45: Tippett’s Midsummer Marriage at the Proms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 45, Tippett, The Midsummer Marriage: Soloists, BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sir Andrew Davis (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London 16.8.2013. (JPr)

Prom 45 CR BBC Chris Christodoulou
Prom 45 CR BBC Chris Christodoulou

Paul Groves (Mark)
Erin Wall (Jenifer)
David Wilson-Johnson (King Fisher)
Ailish Tynan (Bella)
Allan Clayton (Jack)
Catherine Wyn-Rogers (Sosostris)
David Soar (He-Ancient)
Madeleine Shaw (She-Ancient)

Kenneth Richardson (stage director)

There are many operas that are a delight to hear just once, and at the end of a long evening – perhaps someone can explain the need for two intervals – I added this to a lengthening list. What I know of The Midsummer Marriage is because of a long association with the great Alberto Remedios who was an incomparable Mark on the late Colin Davis’s definitive 1970 recording with the orchestra and chorus of the Royal Opera House. I realised I had only listened to those moments of the opera – Act I and the Act III finale – when Mark sings and had skipped everything in between – so this was genuinely a first hearing of the ‘complete’ work. Why ‘complete’? Well, I was close enough to the platform to be able to see that the orchestral parts had a lot of music removed on occasions and I wondered how much had been cut from what is usually performed – or if this was it – nothing in the printed programme addressed this issue.

This is a very ungainly drama with a too-wordy, sprawling – occasionally unsingable – libretto (the composer’s own) though Oliver Soden in his programme note said it does ‘bespeak Tippett’s limitless theatrical imagination’. In reality it is certainly a jumble of – as Soden suggests – Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and T S Eliot’s The Waste Land with added philosophy from Carl Jung – Tippett was a passionate Jungian. I would also like to throw into this mix that it is also influenced by The Golden Bough and the Communist Manifesto because there is clearly a not-too-well hidden political agenda here about the renewal of society after the horrors (especially to Tippett, the pacifist) of World War II.

Over the longest and shortest night of the year, two marrying couples meet in a magic wood near a temple and sanctuary of buildings that – like Brigadoon – may only come to life once a year on this particular night. They interrupt a traditional masque-like celebration and as Soden states ‘they will find each other, and find themselves, by sunrise.’ Mark’s bride-to-be, Jenifer, halts the proceedings, climbs some steps towards the light to seek truth; he passes through some gates and descends to the dark. While they are gone those left behind from the ‘real world’ do a lot of ‘navel-gazing’; this involves Jenifer’s angry father, King Fisher, who is a tycoon for whom money solves everything, Bella, his secretary, and her boyfriend, Jack, for whom hard work is its own reward. Mark and Jenifer return somewhat transformed but if they know how they are not saying so because they are still at loggerheads, he now climbs the stairs while she enters the gates.

Absolutely nothing happens in Act II apart from the first three of the opera’s four Ritual Dances and Bella spending ages singing about putting on her make-up. Sexual politics do intrude here and I wonder how many women in 2013 would be happy to hear how Bella is happy to ‘mind the house and wash the clothes and cook the food’ while Jack is at work! Act III brings us the oracular vision of the veiled clairvoyant, Madame Sosostris, when she describes Mark and Jenifer making love and this sends King Fisher, who has always been against their union, over the edge. He tackles Sosostris, seeking to unveil her but only reveals the bud of an enormous flower with Mark and Jenifer entwined within. Time seems to reset itself back to midsummer morning for their marriage and the opera ends with a quote from W B Yeats ‘All things fall and are built again, and those that build them are gay’. In hindsight, this might have its own biographical significance for Tippett: he certainly seems to be suggesting we all have a dark side that must be confronted before life goes on.

The score has many incandescent moments and even though it is frequently manic and orgiastic there is enough complex counterpoint and impressionistic, soaring, lyrical outbursts to maintain interest over some 160 minutes of music. It was very well played by all sections of the ever-reliable BBC Symphony Orchestra, with the leader, Stephen Bryant, excelling in his solo during the Act III finale. If there was just a hint that they were playing a little conservatively this is only to be expected for this one-off concert. I wondered whether the combined singers from the BBC Symphony Chorus and BBC Singers might also have sung a little more lustily at times, but perhaps their undoubtedly mystical, yet very British choral sound, was exactly what the composer asked for. Sir Andrew Davis showed evident enthusiasm for the score and was his usual eager, bouncy self on the podium. His head was buried deep in the score for most of the evening but this was probably necessary so that all its rhythmic complexities could be kept under his total control.

There was a strong cast of singers and the six central roles demand great versatility and stamina. Paul Groves (Mark) and Erin Wall (Jenifer) lacked a little charisma in the leading roles – though overall they have surprisingly little to sing. Groves lacked the flexibility to reach the high-lying parts of his roles with the ease needed and will not erase the memory of Alberto Remedios, either in the theatre or on CD. Wall’s soprano lacked the resplendent tones Jenifer probably requires though she did sound suitably transfigured for the Act I ending. As King Fisher, David Wilson-Johnson is an experienced singer and was a late replacement for the previously announced Peter Sidhom. His was a brave stab at the role of a self-important, loving father who fails to understand that he is communing with the gods; though however much Wilson-Johnson bellowed and blustered, he didn’t convince me he was entirely comfortable with his unfamiliar music. On the other hand, Ailish Tynan was a total delight as the pert Bella, and alongside Allan Clayton’s heavily bearded – and happy-go-lucky – Jack both were vocally characterful in a way most of their colleagues were not, though they probably benefit from being the two best written ‘characters’. David Soar (He-Ancient) and Madeleine Shaw (She-Ancient) sang nobly, but there is little they can do with these rather static roles. Catherine Wyn-Rogers is an experienced Proms veteran but even she found her almost unending aria, sung from the organ loft, a challenge. I am a great admirer of Ms Wyn-Rogers and she sang with her usual rounded tones, incisiveness and great care but I wanted more authority to her pronouncements: the opera nearly became becalmed during her slow-tempo aria.

This was a concert performance with music stands though Kenneth Richardson was on hand to coordinate all the comings and goings and there was some relaxation of the usual formal concert clothes and this gave us a sense of the characters in the opera. Jack wore check shirt and jeans, Bella some vivid-coloured dresses, the Ancients looked like presenters at the Classic Brit Awards, King Fisher was an elderly bank manager (before they all started to be twenty-years-old), Mark looked as if he had wandered in off the street and Sosostris, the end-of-pier fortune-teller, appeared to have brought her own tent. What staging there was naturally avoided any of the work’s integral dance sections, involving the Ancients’ wordless attendant, Strephon, but the ability to hear the music that accompanies those interludes – without the visual distraction that a modern chorographer might give them – was probably a plus, as Tippett gives us enough to think about anyway.

Hear it or see it once – but once will be enough for most of you.

Jim Pritchard

For more about the 2013 BBC Proms visit .