Michael Tippett (born London, 2 January 1905; died London, 8 January 1998)
First performance: London (Covent Garden), 27 January 1955.
First performance in Scotland: Glasgow (Theatre Royal), 21 September 1988.
Scottish Opera premiere: As above.
Sir Michael Tippett’s operas have always received a certain amount of criticism on the ground that his texts can seem wilfully obscure and pretentious, while his music is invariably recognised as of high quality. This division of views began with his first opera, which took several years to gain acceptance, in spite of the fact that the first performances were conducted by John Pritchard and included Joan Sutherland and Richard Lewis in the cast, as Jenifer and Mark, with designs by Barbara Hepworth and choreography by John Cranko. The Midsummer Marriage is now recognised as a masterpiece almost in spite of the text, with many musical highlights. The Ritual Dances have achieved a popular place as a concert item in their own right. The plot has obvious similarities to Die Zauberflöte (Mozart) and Die Frau ohne Schatten (Strauss), with two couples seeking enlightenment to allow them to proceed with a successful form of marriage.
Mark, a young man of unknown parentage (tenor)
Jenifer, his betrothed (soprano)
King Fisher, Jenifer’s father, a businessman (baritone)
Bella, King Fisher’s secretary (soprano)
Jack, Bella’s boyfriend, a mechanic (tenor)
Sosostris, a clairvoyante (contralto)
Two Ancients, priest and priestess of the temple (bass and mezzo-soprano)
The opera takes place on Midsummer’s Day. The background of a typical English garden fête is rendered mysterious by the presence of the near-allegorical figures of Sosostris and the Ancients. Jenifer’s father opposes the marriage between Jenifer and Mark. Strephon and his acolytes perform a traditional dance, though Mark wants a new one. When Jenifer arrives she postpones the marriage in order to search for truth. She disappears up a staircase by the temple, while Mark enters a nearby cave, the gates to which are then locked. King Fisher, pursuing his daughter, enlists the help of Bella and Jack, without success. Sosostris warns them that interference will not work. Jenifer sings of her purity of spirit, and she rejects Mark’s more mundane ideas, but they decide ti investigate further. Bella proposes to Jack, and is accepted. A series of Ritual Dances follows based on three of the seasons, led by Strephon representing various animals being hunted. Bella finds these upsetting, but is comforted by Jack. As the revellers continue to party, King Fisher is increasingly frustrated at his inability to find Jenifer. He commands Sosostris to reveal where Mark and Jenifer are. When they at last appear, locked in an embrace, King Fisher tries to shoot Mark, but instead he drops dead of a heart attack. As he is carried off, Strephon leads the fourth dance, representing summer. As a chilly dawn breaks, Jenifer agrees to marry Mark, and they leave together.
LYRITA (2 CDs) Sung in English Recorded 1970
Conductor: Colin Davis
Orchestra of Royal Opera House
Alberto Remedios (Mark), Joan Carlyle (Jenifer), Raimund Herincx (King Fisher), Elizabeth Harwood (Bella), Stuart Burrows (Jack), Helen Watts (Sosostris), Stafford Dean (He-Ancient), Elizabeth Bainbridge (She-Ancient).
This recording preserves Ande Anderson’s production, which was the first staging at Covent Garden since the premiere. The cast all sound quite at home in the idiom, and Colin Davis had by now established himself as a great and authoritative conductor of Tippett’s music. Alberto Remedios had spent a decade at Sadler’s Wells developing towards the wonderful Wagner tenor he became, and he combines power and lyricism quite beautifully. Joan Carlyle, a long-term member of the Covent Garden company, did not make many recordings, but she was an excellent performer. There are no weaknesses in the rest of the cast.
GALA (2 CDs) Sung in English Recorded 1955
Conductor: John Pritchard
Orchestra of Royal Opera House
Richard Lewis (Mark), Joan Sutherland (Jenifer), Otakar Kraus (King Fisher), Adèle Leigh (Bella), John Lanigan (Jack), Monica Sinclair (Sosostris), Michael Langdon (He-Ancient), Edith Coates (She-Ancient).
The very first performance of The Midsummer Marriage was broadcast, and this is the result, in quite acceptable sound for its age. It seems that most of the cast had little idea of what the work was about and that Tippett was no help in trying to explain it. In those circumstances the results are remarkable. Pritchard conducted several new operas, and steers everyone through what was strange territory for them. Jenifer is the only role to have been created by Joan Sutherland, but Tippett did include elements of coloratura to show off how her voice was developing. The rest of the cast give thoroughly dedicated performances.
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