It’s so good to hear Tippett’s ravishing opera, The Midsummer Marriage, performed in full at the Proms, particularly in Britten’s centenary year. Tippet’s work is like an antidote to Britten’s drier, more literal operatic style – so overflowing with warmth, colour and hope.

Catherine Wyn-Rogers © Chris Christodoulou
Catherine Wyn-Rogers
© Chris Christodoulou

Deeply misunderstood in 1955 when it was first performed at Covent Garden, Tippett’s first opera had to wait until its second production at that house, when it was conducted by Colin Davies in 1968, to finally be recognised for the masterpiece it is. Since then, it has been performed regularly in the UK and has had an increasing presence on the international opera scene. As such, it is the only 20th-century British opera, alongside a select few (Peter Grimes and The Turn of the Screw) of Britten’s works, to achieve this success.

This concert performance certainly reinforced the status of the piece: stripped of the distracting “ideas” of a full production, the true splendour of the musical invention shone through – but that's not to imply that Tippett’s work isn’t a highly theatrical piece. Tippett was very careful to give this work a theatrical and poetic setting, calling to mind works such as The Magic Flute and Wagner’s Ring cycle. He was also conscious of making the work attractive and challenging for singers to perform. All six of the main characters have their own set pieces and their parts overall are extremely gratifying to sing. Midsummer Marriage also boasts perhaps the most beautiful ballet music written for any opera – the so-called “Ritual Dances” in Acts 2 and 3.

Under the exemplary direction of Sir Andrew Davis, who gave the first performance of Tippett’s much underrated oratorio The Mask of Time, the quality of the performance was announced from the word go. Stabbing brass chords and scurrying strings led us quickly into the mysterious woodland world. The BBC Symphony Orchestra seemed instantly at ease with Tippett’s tricky rhythmic patterns – and so they should be, having performed all his symphonies and concertos over the past nine months in concert at the Barbican, an ideal preparation for this performance of a work that summarises all that the composer had learnt up to that point.

The long first act was held together splendidly by generally fast tempi and the rock solid, often inspired, work of the BBC Symphony Chorus and the BBC Singers. The Act mainly “belongs” to the privileged, more pretentious couple, Jenifer and Mark, whose agonies of self-discovery are presented with some of the most dramatic solo music in the opera. Mark’s ecstatic first aria was sung with authority and warmth by tenor Paul Groves. His lover/nemesis Jenifer, performed to near perfection by Canadian soprano Erin Wall, produced some of her finest singing in her great aria at the end of the act. The other main character featured in the first act is King Fisher, perhaps the most interesting and rounded of the protagonists. Clearly and forcefully sung by David Wilson-Johnson, he blusters and bullies his way through the opera, inevitably moving towards his tragicomic end in Act 3.

In Act 2 we find ourselves in the very different emotional world of the second couple, Bella and Jack. Their simpler music portrays the directness of their love and their personalities (think Papagena and Papageno). Bella, sung with wit and precision by the ever-charming Ailish Tynan, is King Fisher's secretary. Jack is his down-to-earth handyman, ably brought to life by Allan Clayton. The first three of the glorious “Ritual Dances” interrupts their pretty lovemaking. The couple observes the depiction of hunts in nature, and for a moment this disturbs their equilibrium. However, Bella quickly comes back to earth with her tongue-in-cheek aria – almost too well sung by Ailish Tynan – while she adjusts her makeup.

The dramatic and mystical heart of the work lies in the great music of Act 3. Sosostris’s great aria, powerfully delivered by Catherine Wyn-Rogers, is the dramatic fulcrum that leads to the death of King Fisher, the final joining of Bella and Jack and the re-emergence of Jenifer and Mark in the new splendour of their love. The final “Ritual Dance” sees the apotheosis of this love, in a truly glorious tapestry of melody and rhythmic vitality. This critical moment in the opera was handled expertly, with the full force of orchestra, chorus and soloists allowed to shine through the complex textures. But then Tippett has one more trick up his sleeve – the final scene with its luxurious depiction of hope and renewal. This thoughtful epilogue came off splendidly, thanks again to Andrew Davis and his deep understanding of the work’s beating heart. This was a Prom to cherish and one that will ring in my ears for a very long time.

*****