The first thing I liked about this production was the elegant semi-abstract staging. I’m not a particular fan of minimalist staging, so I think maybe I’ve just seen too many cluttered and cramped stages recently. Anyway, there was an impression of airy space, with a large globe and spiral staircase the only objects on view. There was also the distinct impression that this was going to be an opera laying on the symbolism pretty thickly. Midsummer Marriage has been described as ‘a modern Magic Flute’, and there are certainly some obvious similarities, the obvious ones being the two young couples (one posh – at least, she is; one common), the powerful father figure attempting to control his daughter, the ancient pagan religious order, etc. along with the theme of passing through various trials and ordeals to return changed (hopefully for the better).
Amanda Roocroft and Will Hartmann were in good voice, although not entirely convincing in the lead roles of Jenifer and Mark; to be fair, this may have been more to do with the direction, or in fact the libretto itself, than their acting. It is probably quite difficult to show the sadness, conflict and yearning present in Jenifer at the start while wearing a wedding dress with a bright orange fleece hoodie over the top. The ‘working class’ couple, Bella and Jack, have more comedy-orientated scenes, and lighter music; however, to me they actually came over the stronger of the two pairs. Cora Burggraaf’s performance as Bella the secretary was to me the highlight of the performance. This was Burggraaf’s Covent Garden debut; hopefully the first of many, as her voice had flexibility and crystal clarity, floating over the orchestra in an apparently effortless manner. I was really not swept away by John Tomlinson’s performance as King Fisher, although he did make some pleasant sounds in the quieter passages. Elena Manistina was a commanding Sosostris, giving a real feeling of unearthliness in her long soliloquy. This role is sometimes listed as mezzo, sometimes contralto, but certainly requires a great deal of strength and sonority in the lower register; this Manistina definitely has, on occasions sounding quite baritonal (although with a bit too heavy vibrato for my taste.) In the smaller roles, I was very pleased to see Brindley Sherratt turn up as the He-Ancient, having heard him last month in Maskarade, and he was well supported by Diana Montague as the She-Ancient. They managed to bring a feeling of dignity and a certain ‘spiritual depth’ to the stage merely by appearing – and this despite the fact that they were stepping out of a rotating globe, accompanied by the entire office staff of the Ministry of Funny Walks.
Ah yes, the dancers. And the famous Dances of the Ancients, which take up the majority of the second act. I have to admit first that I’m not a massive fan of big dance sections in the middle of operas (if that hasn’t become clear from previous reviews). In this case, the music was strong enough to carry it off, but I’m afraid I found the actual dances that were going on really quite offputting. I am told that the Ancients were originally supposed to be naked, but as with Salome, this appears to be another perverse example of having lots of naked or semi-naked people on stage when the story doesn’t require it, yet to keep them well covered when it does. So, we were presented with the Ancients in black suits and vaguely bowler-style hats, all doing their funny walk on and then treating us to a kind of flamenco-morris crossover, with piggybacks, falling over, and the men pretending to hang themselves with their ties. Hum. Lovely woodwind melodies or no, this was a section of the opera that could have done with some trimming, particularly with the opera running at near to 4 hours. While on the subject of editing, another section that should probably have been trimmed was Bella’s narration of putting her make-up on. However, in this case I can forgive it (even with its unpleasant caricaturing of women) because Burggraaf’s lovely voice.
The orchestra played very well, with precision and balance, with the woodwind sounding excellent, particularly in the solo passages which Tippett scored so masterfully. I disagreed with my companion on the topic of the chorus. He thought there were far too many of them, unnecessarily squeezed into all spare corners of the stage; although I can see his point, I really liked the power and sheer knock-you-back-in-your-seat quality of a huge chorus. However, we were both agreed that when they all got a bit lustful and started undressing eachother and canoodling, it was just a bit embarrassing. There was the distinct impression that the men felt uncomfortable standing at the front of the stage undoing their shirts, and the women didn’t really want to stroke their exposed tummies.
I tend to avoid reading reviews of things before going to see them. I am unlikely to be swayed into going to see something (or not) on the recommendation of someone I don’t know, and I also like surprises. However, getting offered massively discounted tickets for a show is something of an indication that it’s not selling too well. This can partly be put down simply to it being ‘modern’, but not completely. I actually enjoyed it very much, overall, but I can also see why it might irritate some people. In fact, a fairly succinct opinion poll can be derived from the audience on the night I was there: a considerable number didn’t return after the intervals; however, the applause at the end from those who remained (including ourselves) was pretty ecstatic.