The Midsummer Marriage
Royal Opera House. London. Autumn 2005

Review by Polly Hope

Okay, everyone for a high summer picnic? Yes, it is Midsummer Eve and the locals are out in force hop, skipping and jumping on the greensward. They try hard with the hey nonny nonny no but dancing to Mr Tippett's beat means you can't really enjoy yourself because you have to count. And keep counting. Tricky stuff for those living the rustic life. Never mind, here's our hero who will explain all. Hopefully he can tell us all about that blue ball with clouds painted on it that fills half the stage. No, he doesn't know what the object is; he just tells us it is his wedding day. And here comes his bride who climbs a staircase into the sky and vanishes. That blue ball opens up and, wow, who would have guessed, inside are a couple of old folks. At least they are called ancients but don't look past fifty. Both he and she wear trilbys, as do a dozen dancers who wave knobbly sticks around. A chap called King Fisher, he us supposed to be bad news, the bride Jenifer is his daughter and he wants her home. Understandably as it is 1955 and girls stayed home in those days.

And so it all rolls on, hour after hour. In Act 2 we are treated to an alternative Rite of Spring but no one actually gets sacrificed; though it was a near thing for that particular chap in a trilby. We shuffle back to the bar for more coffee. Very necessary as sleep is creeping in like a spider's wed dropping over the entire audience. In Act 3 The People, yes those weekenders from Act 1 are now all drunk and are finding it harder to count the beats in a bar. Still, much fun is had on stage as they fumble each other. At one point the blue ball opens again, except it must be a second blue ball as instead of sliding doors it opens up in petals like a map projection and look! Here comes the Pythoness, the Delphic Oracle, or is she the Queen of Heaven? She could be, as she glitters a lot under her sooty veil. All ends well and a Midsummer Marriage is on the way.

This is an extraordinary opera, to try and get all the mythology of Spring and Marriage into a single work is breathtaking. A most valiant effort but I do think Tippett could have used a good librettist and an experienced dramaturge. There are so many good things but the final pudding is over plumed and has become indigestible. The music is equally over spiced though the famous Ritual Dances are quite lovely.

Richard Hickox drives the music on with his usual aplomb. Every note is as clear as the dream summer sky on stage. Will Hartmann as the enthusiastic groom sings as a worried bachelor might, though he did seem to have some trouble with the language. Amanda Roocroft was her usual glowing self and gave firmness and poignancy to the bride to be, Jenifer. John Tomlinson looked liked he was the director of the local museum having switched his Wotan robes for a camelhair coat and shirt and tie. Everyone else sang the difficult music well, though I don't know quite why the ancients had to look so cross the whole time.

Ultimately the opera does seem very dated and redolent of the decade it was written when The White Goddess was the text thinking people talked about. A fine thing for the Royal Opera House to dig out of the bottom drawer, though I think maybe it should languish there longer until it really metamorphoses into a period piece.

© Polly Hope. London. October 2005