Opera Scotland

Knot Garden

Music
Michael Tippett (born London, 2 January 1905; died London, 8 January 1998)

Text
The composer.

Source
Original, though influenced by elements from The Tempest (Shakespeare).

Premières
First performance: London (Covent Garden), 2 December 1970.
First performance in Scotland: Glasgow (Theatre Royal), 19 January 2005.
Scottish Opera première: As above.

Background
Sir Michael Tippett’s original programme note for the Royal Opera included the following – The Knot Garden is about the loves and hates of seven people in modern England. Mangus, a psychoanalyst, has been invited to stay in the house of Faber and his wife Thea. She hopes that Mangus can help with the problems of their young ward Flora, who is obsessed by the half-real, half-imagined sexual threat of Faber. Mangus discovers that it is not Flora that is sick but the marriage, and engineers a series of confrontations and “games” to resolve the difficulties. He sees himself as a modern Prospero, manipulating the characters. Dov, a musician, and his lover Mel, a young Negro writer, are also staying in the house, but as Thea’s guests rather than Faber’s. The arrival of Thea’s sister Denise, a revolutionary, changes all the relationships.

Characters
Faber, a civil engineer, aged about 35 (robust baritone)
Thea, his wife, a gardener (dramatic mezzo-soprano)
Flora, their ward, an adolescent girl (light high soprano)
Denise, Thea’s sister, a freedom fighter (dramatic soprano)
Mel, a Negro writer in his late twenties (lyric bass-baritone)
Dov, his white friend, a musician (lyric tenor)
Mangus, an analyst (high baritone)

Plot Summary
The opera takes place in Thea’s garden, an imaginary area much bigger than the typical Elizabethan knot garden of the title. Mangus considers himself to be able to manipulate the characters. Denise arrives, disfigured as a result of being a torture victim, and bitterly derisive of the other characters. Mel and Dov also visit, and it is clear their relationship is not going smoothly. The characters all meet up in new pairings in a labyrinth, and relationships change. Flora is still insecure with Faber and Thea is jealous. Faber then is drawn to Dov, and Mel pairs off with Denise. Flora attempts to sort out her own torment by singing a Schubert song, and Mel introduces an element of jazz. Elements from The Tempest are introduced by Mangus, with Faber as Ferdinand, Flora as Miranda, Dov as Ariel, and Mel as Caliban. Faber and Thea give their marriage another chance, while Denise and Mel leave together. Dov and Flora are alone at the end, but it seems they are better able to cope with the world. Mangus has also realised that although he has been manipulating the other characters, he has not been as detached and immune to their influence as he thought.

RECORDINGS

DECCA (2 CDs) Sung in English Recorded 1973

Conductor: Colin Davis
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Raimund Herincx (Faber), Yvonne Minton (Thea), Jill Gomez (Flora), Josephine Barstow (Denise),
Thomas Carey (Mel), Robert Tear (Dov), Thomas Hemsley (Mangus).

This recording has now acquired classic status, and it is difficult to imagine it being surpassed in the future. Whether the opera itself is as good as it seemed at the time is debatable – perhaps its initial production flattered it. The premiere in 1970 was conducted by Colin Davis and directed by Peter Hall, and seems to have delighted the composer. The original cast met up again for a revival in 1973, when this recording was made, and sound entirely at home. The names are self-recommending, and with two exceptions they sang major roles with Scottish Opera. The Australian mezzo Yvonne Minton, a Covent Garden regular for many years, was a great interpreter of Mozart, Strauss, Wagner, and many other styles. Thomas Carey was not generally an operatic performer, but sang Joe (and therefore “Ol’ Man River”) in a major West End revival of Show Boat with Cleo Laine around this time. If any further bait were required, the reissue on CD is supplemented with a recording of Tippett’s Fourth Symphony, performed by the band that commissioned it – Solti and the Chicago Symphony.

The Cast

Denise
 Thea's sister, a freedom fighter
Dov
 a musician
Faber
 Thea's husband
Flora
 Faber and Thea's ward
Mangus
 an analyst
Mel
 a writer
Thea
 Faber's wife

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