Saturday night Jordan Hall was, perhaps, half full for three hours of memorable music as Gil Rose conducted Boston Modern Orchestra Project in a concert performance of Michael Tippett’s 1955 opera, The Midsummer Marriage.
Michael Tippett’s music in this work falls squarely into the English pastoral tradition. The harmonies are un-challenging, and the idiom continues the rich tradition of British choral music. Only for a few minutes later in the work does the composer show awareness of the trends in post-tonal harmony, serialism, and extended instrumental technique which a compositional date of 1955 might cause one to expect. The orchestra and chorus gave a fine reading of the music; the second act instrumental interludes were especially memorable. These dances were lively and infectious, with the musicians responding readily to Rose’s clear conducting.
The opera is in three acts, here presented with an intermission between the first and second acts. Act I transpires during morning, Act II during afternoon, and Act III during evening and night: the entire Midsummer day condensed into three hours. Taking the plot of Die Zauberflöte as its starting point, Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage revolves around a wedding between Mark, tenor Julius Ahn, and Jenifer, soprano Sara Heaton – but also between Bella, soprano Deborah Selig, and Jack, tenor Matthew DiBattista. Jenifer is the daughter of King Fisher, baritone David Kravitz. Bella is King Fisher’s assistant; Jack is a man of all trades. Mezzo-sopranos Joyce Castle, as Sosostris (a clairvoyant), and Lynn Torgove, as She-Ancient, along with Robert Honeysucker, baritone, as He-Ancient, rounded out this cast; all three brought a gravity and depth to their parts, and to the opera as a whole. The singing was all of high quality; Castle particularly impressed me for her ability to match timbre and color with the orchestra during her entrance, giving her music an apt otherworldly quality. DiBattista charmed with his earnest singing, very well suited to his character here. Kravitz brought a fittingly loathsome aspect to his reading of King Fisher but sang as though strained before the night was over.
In the first act, Mark sings, “My wedding should be strange.” This line could serve as an epigraph to the work as a whole. Tippett wrote the libretto himself (after T. S. Eliot demurred and encouraged Tippett to do it). Robert Kirzinger’s program note does a good job of attempting to unpack some of the strangeness here, as Tippett mapped his own psycho-sexual concerns onto Emmanuel Schikaneder’s plot (if not Mozart’s music), cathecting the whole through his reading of the work of Carl Jung. The presence of archetypal characters as He-Ancient and She-Ancient are a clue to the end result of all these combined elements in the plot, along with the introduction of a clairvoyant in the plot.
While Mark and Jenifer are slated to be wed, their nuptial day does not proceed without a hitch. Jenifer calls off the wedding, then goes through some doors that open only for “proper people” and disappears. Her father, King Fisher, is furious about her planned marriage to Mark and also her disappearance; Bella brought a great touch of comedy to the oddity, as the King Fisher only speaks to others through her and the Ancients refuse this foolish behavior. It never became clear where Jenifer went and eventually she returned. The interaction between Jack and Bella was a more clear-cut love story, with none of the opacity of Ancients or portal-gates. Overlaying all of this were random lines in the text revealing Tippett’s flirtations with Communism; even if he was no longer a card-carrying member when he composed this work, he remained a fellow traveler. So King Fisher is very much a powerful businessman, and the opera deflates his ego – as captured in this performance. In the end, something is greater than capitalism or power that is of this world – but what?
Opera is a marriage between words and music; some unions are more successful than others. I would have enjoyed this concert much more if I had understood the libretto and action. My incomprehension was not based on poor enunciation or anything about the performers (nor the supertitles, here shown on monitors to either side of the stage). Instead, I felt like the text was repulsing my efforts at comprehension, remaining as close to the unattainable as is the gate through which Jenifer passes in Act I. Individual scenes reveal character and motivation, but connecting the vignettes and the interactions between the characters I found a real puzzle. For me this insurmountable obstacle kept me from enjoying what was an accomplished musical performance.
It might have helped if this were not a concert performance of a work many of us do not know, but a full staging of Tippett’s opera. As it was, leaving the hall I ran into an acquaintance who asked what I thought of the show; in abbreviated form I expressed the same opinion presented here. He was gratified to learn he was not the only one who enjoyed the music but was utterly baffled by the text. We discussed what happens at the end of the opera, but neither of us could, with confidence, answer this easy question about a work we had just experienced. Researching the opera after I had returned home, I found answers, but even so they were not clear in a concert performance, and seemingly take place in the last few bars of the music. That is awkward for us all. I cannot say that a full staging of this work would have answered all of my questions. But unlike Maeterlinck/Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, individual lines and scenes do not rise to the status of poetry in Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage. Even though the music is pleasing, the words strain for a profundity they do not reach.