“Was it a vision? Was it a dream?” sings the chorus towards the end of Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage. No, this was real: full-scale musical performance has indeed returned to London’s Royal Festival Hall. And given Tippett’s underlying theme of renewal and rebirth in his opera, this event, dreamt up over two years ago, took on extra significance in the light of the cultural deprivations of the past 18 months. Moreover, it marked a new start for the London Philharmonic Orchestra, with Edward Gardner making his debut as its new Principal Conductor, in succession to Vladimir Jurowski.

Edward Gardner, Robert Murray and the LPO
© Mark Allan

Tippett’s magical first opera has not been heard in London since a Proms outing in 2013, nor staged since the last Royal Opera revival in 2005, 50 years after its premiere in the same house. And if this concert performance (billed as a semi-staging in the programme but little of the sort in practice) has done anything, one hopes it might chivvy an opera company or two – in the UK or overseas – into reconsidering this gloriously fecund and seminal work of postwar British opera. (It would be fascinating to see what a Castorf, a Warlikowski or a Guth, to name but three leading directors, might make of it on stage.)

In a programme interview, Gardner made the case for performing The Midsummer Marriage in concert rather than on stage, and it does indeed throw up a number of dramatic puzzles for the director, with its combination of myth, philosophy, psychoanalysis and – to some minds – other mumbo jumbo expressed in the composer’s own idiosyncratic libretto, a mix of the hifalutin and the vernacular. Yet its plot – the journey of self-discovery that a couple finds they must undergo before committing themselves to marriage, one of seeking both the dark and the light sides of their personalities – is coherent and, as in this performance, can come across as particularly moving and cathartic.

Claire Barnett-Jones, Edward Gardner and Ashley Riches
© Mark Allan

In the absence of stage action, however, it would have helped a first-timer for the surtitles to have been more consistent in marking the dramatic events as they happened: they set the scene neatly at the start of the evening, but there was nothing later to explain either the arrival of Jack in the disguise of a false medium nor the death of King Fisher as he succumbs to a “gesture of power” from Mark and Jenifer; we only had the sung texts to explain what had just happened. Obviously, distancing requirements had limited plans for a true semi-staging, but, apart from Bella acting as go-between with her boss King Fisher and the Ancients in one scene and the appropriate stage entrances and exits of the characters in general, everyone was rooted to their music stands and largely sang out to the audience more than to each other.

Thankfully, the musical performance made up for any shortcomings in presentation. The playing of the LPO under Gardner's direction was simply incandescent, and found the perfect balance between rhythmic acuity and midsummer-infused warmth of tone. Tippett’s orchestra is little bigger than a Beethovenian ensemble, with the addition of all-important harp, celesta and a smattering of percussion, but the array of sounds he produces is richly imaginative, and the many solo instrumental roles, from filigree strings to dappled woodwind and priapic brass, played their part in the success of the whole here, especially in the Ritual Dances, where the orchestra came into its own.

Toby Spence, Jennifer France and the LPO
© Mark Allan

The cast could hardly have been bettered either, though perhaps we have the composer to blame if the ‘secondary’ couple Jack (Toby Spence) and Bella (Jennifer France) upstaged the ‘royal’ couple of Mark (Robert Murray) and Jenifer (Rachel Nicholls), who spend over half the evening finding their Jungian selves out of sight up a staircase or in cave (or in their dressing rooms). That said, both Murray and Nicholls had the measure of their particularly angular vocal lines, the former catching the music’s lyricism, the latter its penetrating assertiveness despite a lack of tonal allure, and Spence and France – the most communicative members of the cast – added some much-needed dramatic chemistry. Ashley Riches was an incisive King Fisher and it was a treat to have recent Cardiff Singer alumnus Claire Barnett-Jones as an Erda-like Madame Sosostris; Joshua Bloom and Susan Bickley’s delightfully world-weary Ancients completed the line-up. Last but not least, though, in this most choral of operas, was the exceptional contribution from the combined ENO and LPO choruses.

“All things fall and are built again,” the libretto concludes, quoting W.B. Yeats: a motto for our times.

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