The dark side
01/21/2005 - and 28 January, 2005
Michael Tippett: A Child of Our Time
Susan Gritton (soprano), Sara Fulgoni (contralto), Timothy Robinson (tenor), Brindley Sherratt (bass)
Martyn Brabbins (conductor), Jonathan Kent (director)
ENO Orchestra and Chorus
Seß Doran, the general manager of the English National Opera, has promised to take the house's Englishness seriously, so it is no surprise to find a work by Michael Tippett in the first season that Doran has had an input to. A Child of Our Time is, though, not an opera, but one of a range of modernist oratorios from the first part of the twentieth century. Its nearest sibling is probably Ralph Vaughan Williams' cantata for soprano, baritone, chorus and orchestra, Dona nobis pacem, another anti-war work of the 1930s. Vaughan Williams, though, set texts by Walt Whitman, extracts from the Bible and an extract from John Bright's speech in parliament on the Crimean war, to build up a general argument about all wars. Tippett began with his own Jungian-based reflections on one event, the murder of a German consular official in Paris by a Herschel Grynspan, a German Jewish refugee protesting against the anti-Semitism that had driven him abroad. The Nazi government responded with Kristallnacht, a massive and systematic assault on Jewish Germans, and on civilization, comparable in its iconic force to the photographs from Abu Ghraib in recent months. T.S. Eliot agreed to write a libretto to Tippett's outline, but, on seeing the draft, told him to write it himself. The contrast between Whitman and the King James Bible in Dona nobis pacem and Tippett's own rough-hewn text is obvious, but A Child of Our Time is all the more emotionally engaging because the words are purely at the service of the music and its ideas.
But, while it is undeniably dramatic, A Child of Our Time is hardly theatrical. Tippett's formal models were the Bach Passions, which can be staged because they have a core narrative, although they are thoroughly based in doctrine rather than action, and Handel's Messiah, which is at its heart about the relationship between texts and history. The main contribution of Bach is in fact the spirituals, which take the place of the congregational chorales; the tri-partite shape of A Child of Our Time comes from Messiah, with its structure of prophecy, crisis and transcendence. It seems precisely designed for oratorio performance, where the human presence of the singers embodies ideas or symbols rather than representing characters.
Jonathan Kent, in his first production in an opera house, does not try to impose a narrative on A Child of Our Time, but follows the shape of Tippett's music, having the chorus and singers act out the shadowing within individuals and society and the impulses of violence and tenderness. Kent's methods are, to say the least, unsurprising: soloists in concert dress doubled by actors in everyday gray; the chorus in Brechtian overcoats swarming and roaring; Grynspan, dead, cradled by his mother in a pietÓ pose; knives and lights lowered to the stage. But Tippett's message is hardly new either, and the production fully respects the music. If it doesn't add anything, it also does no harm, which is probably an achievement in itself.
The soloists were all first rate. Sara Fulgoni sang with beautiful tone and few words, while Susan Gritton was magnificent in every way. Timothy Robinson, no longer a lyric lightweight, was equally impressive, and Brindley Sherratt was authoritative as the bass narrator. The ENO chorus was appropriately forceful. The orchestra under Martyn Brabbins found the score's romantic splendor and tension superbly.