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Prom 45: The Midsummer Marriage - review

08.18.13
Sir Andrew Davis
The Guardian

By George Hall

Royal Albert Hall, London
Vocally, chorally and orchestrally, Tippett's first opera is one of the great achievements of its period in British music

Tippett's first opera opened to a mixed reception at Covent Garden in 1955, and has divided audiences and critics ever since. Its detractors point to the awkwardness of the composer's libretto, which floats along on a flood tide of heavily symbolic Jungian mysticism, and which even Andrew Davis – the enthusiastic conductor of this Prom performance – admits has moments when "you wince a little bit". Loyal devotees, meanwhile, emphasise the extraordinary luxuriance of the score, an unstinting outpouring of lyricism that represents the apogee of the first phase of the composer's career; vocally, chorally and orchestrally, the result surely amounts to one of the great achievements of its period in British music.

Underpinned by Kenneth Richardson's effective semi-staging, the very real strengths of the score came over vividly here, with Davis steering the piece skilfully and the BBC Symphony Orchestra responding with vitality. Tippett's chorus – young people inhabiting the mysterious magic wood where the action takes place, like a group of new age travellers who've arrived a few decades early – challenged society in the shape of the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus, though their engagement was slightly compromised by a tone that sounded more choral society than operatic chorus.

There were fine elements in the cast. Paul Groves brought flexibility if not quite enough power to Mark, while Erin Wall more than matched him as a Jenifer of poise and determination. The second couple in Tippett's Magic Flute-like set-up were more evenly paired, Ailish Tynan's personality-girl Bella ordering Allan Clayton's demotic Jack around like nobody's business. David Wilson-Johnson gave full value as King Fisher, the wicked businessman who has a heart attack at the end of the piece to serve him right. Madeleine Shaw and David Soar brought extramundane authority to the pagan-priestly Ancients, and Catherine Wyn-Rogers delivered Sosostris's inscrutable utterances memorably; yet however inspiring the result, you were once again left wondering whether TS Eliot's advice to Tippett to write his own librettos was really a good idea.