The Midsummer Marriage

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The Midsummer Marriage is an opera in three acts, with music and libretto by Michael Tippett. The work's first performance was at Covent Garden, 27 January 1955, conducted by John Pritchard. The reception of the opera was controversial, over perceived confusion as to the libretto and Tippett's use of symbols and psychological references.[1][2] Nonetheless the opera has received at least ten more productions, including two further productions at the Royal Opera, in England, Wales, Scotland, Germany, Sweden and the United States.[3]

The premiere performance was recorded, and has been issued on compact disc. Covent Garden first revived the work in 1968 conducted by Colin Davis with the Ritual Dances choreographed by Gillian Lynne and in 1970, where the production formed the basis of the first commercial recording.[4] Tippett extracted the Four Ritual Dances from the opera as a separate concert work.

Story background[edit]

The story of The Midsummer Marriage was consciously modeled after Mozart's The Magic Flute.[5] Both trace the path to marriage of one "royal" and one "common" couple: Jenifer and Mark correspond to Pamina and Tamino, the earthy Jack and Bella to Papageno and Papagena. King Fisher stands in for the Queen of the Night, the Ancients for Sarastro and his priests, and so on.

But the composer's first inspiration for the work was visual: Tippett recalled imagining "a wooded hill-top with a temple, where a warm and soft young man was being rebuffed by a cold and hard young woman to such a degree that the collective, magical archetypes take charge – Jung's anima and animus."

The character Sosostris is named after "Madame Sosostris, the famous clairvoyante," in T. S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land, and King Fisher's name is inspired by the Fisher King character mentioned in the same poem. Tippett was first given the idea of attempting a verse drama by reading Eliot's plays, and he corresponded with the poet with an eye to collaborating on the libretto for his opera, tackling the job himself when Eliot declined.

Performance history[edit]

The Royal Opera House has mounted three productions of The Midsummer Marriage, in 1955, 1968 and 1996.[6] The 1996 production was revived in 2005, to mark the centenary of Tippett's birth.[7][8]

In 1976 Welsh National Opera staged a production[9] designed by Annena Stubbs,[10] that they toured in cities such as Leeds.[11] The cast that included Felicity Lott as Jenifer[12] and Helen Watts, who had played the role in London in 1968, and recorded it in 1970, as Sosostris.[13] David Cairns wrote that it was this production that showed the opera "responds very readily to simple, imaginative staging, and that there were never any serious problems [with it] except in our attitude".[14]

Other British productions have been put on by English National Opera[15] and Opera North, both in 1985,[16][17] and Scottish Opera in 1988.[18]

Abroad, the opera has received at least five productions. The German premiere was on 29 September 1973, at the Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe with Lieselotte Rebmann as Jennifer.[19] Another German production was at the Bayerische Staatsoper in 1998. Other productions have been at Stockholm in 1982,[20] San Francisco in 1983, New York City Opera in 1993[21] and the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2005.[22][23]

Concert performances have been given at the 1977 London Proms,[24] which was given by the forces gathered for WNO's 1976 production, and in Boston in 2012.[25]

Roles[edit]

Role Voice type Premiere cast,
27 January 1955[26]
(Conductor:
John Pritchard)
Cast of first studio recording,
1970
(Conductor:
Sir Colin Davis)
Cast of Welsh National Opera
production, 1976[27]
(Conductor:
Richard Armstrong)
Mark, a young man of unknown parentage tenor Richard Lewis Alberto Remedios John Treleaven
Jenifer, his betrothed soprano Joan Sutherland Joan Carlyle Jill Gomez
King Fisher, Jenifer's father, a businessman baritone Otakar Kraus Raimund Herincx Raimund Herincx
Bella, King Fisher's secretary soprano Adele Leigh Elizabeth Harwood Mary Davies
Jack, Bella's boyfriend, a mechanic tenor John Lanigan Stuart Burrows Arthur Davies
Sosostris, a clairvoyante contralto Oralia Domínguez Helen Watts Helen Watts
The She-Ancient, priestess of the temple mezzo-soprano Edith Coates Elizabeth Bainbridge Maureen Guy
The He-Ancient, priest of the temple bass Michael Langdon Stafford Dean Paul Hudson
Strephon, a dancer silent Pirmin Trecu Hugh Spight
A voice contralto Monica Sinclair
Dancing man tenor Andrew Daniels Andrew Daniels John Harris
Drunken man bass Gordon Farrell David Whelan Gareth Rhys-Davies
An Ancient bass Frederick Dalberg
Mark and Jennifer's friends, dancers attendant on the Ancients

Scoring[edit]

2 flutes (both doubling on piccolos), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 Bassoons, 4 French horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani and two percussionists playing: snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, gong, tubular bells, harp, celesta and strings.

Synopsis[edit]

The opera is set in a forest clearing, with a group of buildings to one side. The buildings resemble a sanctuary, with a Greek temple in the middle. A set of spiral stairs leads off to the right and breaks off in midair. To the left, they lead down into the hillside. The costumes are contemporary, aside from the dancers and the Ancients.[28]

Act 1 (Morning)[edit]

A young group of people enters the clearing, surprised by the strange buildings. They hide as Strephon leads the dancers and the Ancients out of the temple. Mark emerges and asks for a new dance in honor of his wedding day. The Ancients warn him of the dangers of thwarting tradition. To demonstrate the point, the He-Ancient trips Mark as he dances. His bride Jenifer arrives, but she is distant, having run away from her father, King Fisher. She ascends the stone staircase and disappears.

King Fisher arrives, and Mark enters the cavern. King Fisher thinks Jenifer is with Mark, and he summons Jack to break down the gates after the Ancients refuse to let him inside. During the argument, a radiant Jenifer reappears. Mark returns as well, glowing blood red. Representing "starry heaven" and "fruitful earth", the two confront each other. Jenifer says her soul is free of earthly suffering, while Mark claims to have gained new appreciation for the miracle of mortality. Jenifer tries to show Mark his error in a mirror, but Mark causes the mirror to fall and shatter. The couple reverse their paths, and Jenifer descends into the hillside while Mark ascends the stairs and disappears.

Act 2 (Afternoon)[edit]

In the clearing, Jack and Bella meet and decide to marry. They walk into the woods, and Strephon emerges with his dancers to perform three rituals. In the first, a hound chases a hare, but the hare escapes. In the second, an otter chases a fish, who hurts himself on the root of a tree. In the third, a bird with a broken wing is captured by a hawk. Bella is terrified by the rituals. Jack comforts her as she recomposes herself. Reassured, they resume their playful interlude and run off into the woods.

Act 3 (Evening and Night)[edit]

King Fisher orders the group of young people to fetch Madame Sosostris, his clairvoyant. He is determined to thwart the Ancients, convinced that they are responsible for Jenifer's disappearance. The group returns with Sosostris, and King Fisher orders her to reveal Jenifer's location. She warns him against such inquiries into the dream world, but she reveals Jenifer to be lying in a meadow consorting with a winged lion who has the arms and face of a man. Enraged, King Fisher insists Sosostris is lying to him, and he attempts to unveil her.

As he peels away her veils, they begin to glow. When he has stripped all the veils away, he finds an incandescent bud, which blossoms to reveal Mark and Jenifer. King Fisher aims his pistol at Mark, but the couple break from their meditative state to confront King Fisher, causing his heart to fail. The crowd carries his body into the temple. Strephon emerges from the temple with his dancers to perform a fourth ritual, which celebrates carnal love by transforming it into the fire of divine love. The ritual concludes as the bud closes around Mark and Jenifer and burst into flame.

When the fire subsides, Mark, Jenifer and the Ancients are gone. As the moonlight fades, Mark and Jenifer enter the clearing from opposite sides, dressed for their wedding. They head off down the hill with the crowd as the sun rises. The dawn reveals that the buildings were never more than ruins.

Recording[edit]

  • Gala GL100.524 (1997): Richard Lewis; Joan Sutherland; Adele Leigh; Edith Coates; John Lanigan; Monica Sinclair; Otakar Kraus; Covent Garden Chorus and Orchestra; John Pritchard, conductor. Live recording of the 1955 premiere.
  • Philips 6703.027 (1971, 3 LP set, recorded Wembley Town Hall, July 1970). Reissued on CD by Lyrita: SRCD.2217, 1995: Alberto Remedios; Joan Carlyle; Raimund Herincx; Elizabeth Harwood; Stuart Burrows; Helen Watts; Covent Garden Chorus and Orchestra; Colin Davis, conductor[29]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Dickinson, A. E. F., "Round about The Midsummer Marriage (January 1956). Music & Letters, 37 (1): pp. 50–60.
  2. ^ Spence, Keith, "Midsummer Marriage and its critics: a topical retrospect" (1971). The Musical Times, 112 (1535): p. 28.
  3. ^ "Shop - Sir Michael Tippett - The Midsummer Marriage". Schott Music. Retrieved 2013-09-02. 
  4. ^ White, Eric Walter, "Recordings: Three English Operas Recorded" (1972). Tempo (New Ser.), 98: pp. 30–32.
  5. ^ C. M. (no full name given), "Reviews of Music: The Midsummer Marriage (January 1955). Music & Letters, 36 (1): pp. 93–94.
  6. ^ "Opera: Work details". Rohcollections.org.uk. 1955-01-27. Retrieved 2013-09-02. 
  7. ^ Tom Service (2005-11-02). "The Midsummer Marriage, Royal Opera House, London | Stage". The Guardian. Retrieved 2013-09-02. 
  8. ^ "The Royal Opera – The Midsummer Marriage - from www.classicalsource.com". Classicalsource.com. Retrieved 2013-09-02. 
  9. ^ "Terry Gilbert". London: Telegraph. 2001-09-10. Retrieved 2013-09-02. 
  10. ^ Victoria and Albert Museum page on Annena Stubbs' work on WNO production
  11. ^ "Discovering Leeds - Leeds Classical Music". Leodis.net. 2003-03-25. Retrieved 2013-09-02. 
  12. ^ Richard LeSueur (1947-05-08). "Felicity Lott | Biography". AllMusic. Retrieved 2013-09-02. 
  13. ^ Patrick O'Connor (15 October 2009). "Helen Watts obituary | Music". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 2013-09-02. 
  14. ^ "Tippett and The Midsummer Marriage", David Cairns. Sleeve note essay for Lyrita SRCD.2217
  15. ^ "UK | Lesley Garrett: Doncaster's own diva". BBC News. 2001-12-31. Retrieved 2013-09-02. 
  16. ^ "Opera Aida; The Midsummer Marriage (Opera North, Wiesbaden) » 9 May 1986 » The Spectator Archive". Archive.spectator.co.uk. 1986-05-09. Retrieved 2013-09-02. 
  17. ^ "Tippett in Focus". Perso.wanadoo.es. 1986-01-26. Retrieved 2013-09-02. 
  18. ^ "Midsummer Marriage". Opera Scotland. Retrieved 2013-09-02. 
  19. ^ "Bayreuther Festspiele » Deutsch » Spielplan » Aufführungsdatenbank » Person". Bayreuther-festspiele.de. Retrieved 2013-09-02. 
  20. ^ "Articles". Meirion Bowen. Retrieved 2013-09-02. 
  21. ^ Philadelphia Enquirer review of NYC Opera's production
  22. ^ Long article in Opera News on Tippett's operas in general and previewing the 2005 Chicago production
  23. ^ Review of Chicago production in the Los Angeles Times
  24. ^ "Proms - Prom 45 Tippett – The Midsummer Marriage 2013". BBC. 1970-01-01. Retrieved 2013-09-02. 
  25. ^ "Michael Tippett's Midsummer madness". BMOP. 2012-11-15. Retrieved 2013-09-02. 
  26. ^ Almanacco di Gerardo Casaglia
  27. ^ The Midsummer Marriage, programme book of the first performance by the Welsh National Opera at the New Theatre, Cardiff, 22 September 1976
  28. ^ The synopsis is based on the Philips LP by the Royal Opera House and Colin Davis
  29. ^ Kemp, Ian, "Record Reviews: The Midsummer Marriage (May 1971). The Musical Times, 112 (1539): pp. 454–455.