Obstacles to marriage
11/19/2005 - and 24, 26 November, 01, 06, 15 December 2005
George Frideric Handel: Xerxes
Katarina Karnéus (Xerxes), Lawrence Zazzo (Arsamenes), Lucy Schaufer (Amastris), Neal Davies (Ariodates), Janis Kelly (Romilda), Sarah Tynan (Atalanta), Graeme Danby (Elviro)
Noel Davies (conductor), Nicholas Hynter (original director), Michael Walling (revival director)
ENO Chorus and Orchestra
10/31/2005 and 3, 8, 11, 16, 18 November 2005
Michael Tippett: The Midsummer Marriage
Will Hartman (Mark), Amanda Roocroft (Jenifer), John Tomlinson (King Fisher), Cora Burggraf (Bella), Gordon Gietz (Jack), Elena Manistina (Sosostris), Brindley Sherratt (He-Ancient), Diana Montague (She-Ancient), Gildas Diquero (Strephon)
Richard Hickox (conductor), Graham Vick (director)
Royal Opera Orchestra and Chorus
In his later years, Michael Tippett embraced the label "flamboyant" the way others claimed "queer", while his operas, after King Priam, were toe-curlingly trendy, whatever their musical merits and interest. Photos of the composer from the 1950s, though, show him besuited and only slightly elfin, while The Midsummer Marriage, his first major opera, completed in 1955, seems if anything slightly old-fashioned for its time. Its main literary source is The Wasteland, morphed with the pseudo-realism of The Cocktail Party and a touch of Brecht, and its music is redolent of Vaughan Williams in its use of long-lined English folksongs, which also suit its pastoral-ritual-mythical setting. There may also be a touch of The Fairy Queen in its plot of lovers who run away to a magic place to marry, but there is probably more of Hamlet's Player King than Shakespeare in Tippett's dramaturgy. And although the music has much charm, and even some staying power, it doesn't half go on.
Perhaps the Royal Opera chose The Midsummer Marriage to celebrate the centenary of Tippett's birth because Graham Vick's production was attractive, fairly economical (assuming the machinery for the temple was in store) with its modern dress and fixed set, and not too old. More charitably, the opera is less familiar in London than Tippett's other major stage works -- the ENO did King Priam a couple of years ago and there has been a posy of Knot Gardens recently – and it is associated with Covent Garden, where it had its first performance, with then house singer Joan Sutherland as Jenifer.
Amanda Roocroft was less lush than La Stupenda presumably was, but she had the right edge for a character who is basically a hard bitch, while Will Hartman had a monotone bumptiousness as Mark that made you wonder why they bothered. It something of a relief when they went on their journeys above and below the earth and left the stage to the comic couple. Cora Burggraf as Bella was utterly delightful and very promising. She has a good, well produced voice and a very slightly batty but forceful stage presence that held its own against the great troupers Diana Montague and Brindley Sherratt as the Ancients. Gordon Gietz, an attractive Canadian baritone who as the young Stingo was one of the better things about Sophie's Choice, was charming as Jack. John Tomlinson as King Fisher, Jenifer's plutocrat heavy father, was, well, heavy.
Richard Hickox and the orchestra kept the music lucid and colourful, and helped Ron Howells' choreography greatly in the extended second act ballet, a sort of greenery yallery Rite of Spring.
Handel's Xerxes is almost five times as old as The Midsummer Marriage, but in Nicholas Hynter's twenty-year old production for the ENO it has worn considerably better. First performed in 1738, its libretto dates from the first half of the previous century, and although heavily trimmed for or by Handel it still has traces of its Shakespeare-like origins in its surviving comic servant Elviro and its comedy of misdelivered letters. Hynter's production uses the methods of the RSC of its time, but has a solid enough basis in both the specifics and the general humanity of the work still to be he highly entertaining. By an amusing coincidence, the British Museum currently has an exhibition of objects from ancient Persia that is not totally unlike the educational display in Vauxhall Gardens that provides much of the charm of the setting. And there is a certain archaeological interest in the stratigraphy of the costumes, especially the different finishes on those of the chorus.
Hynter's original production is still available on DVD, and it is clear that some of the detail has rubbed off with time, but Xerxes is still a wonderful show. Katarina Karnéus in the title role sang magnificently (and has the most beautiful mezzo voice), but lacked the swagger and aggression of Anne Murray or Sarah Connolly, previous ENO Xerxeses, let alone Caffarelli, the creator of the role. One night when the machinery failed, Connolly's look at the statue that failed to fall at her command was utterly terrifying, whereas Karnéus showed little more than jet-set charm and confidence. Janis Kelly's Romilda, in contrast, was feisty and adorable, while Sarah Tynan was suitably gawky as Atalanta and also sang terrifically. Lucy Schaufer, a wonderful Hildy in On the Town, was slightly too perky as Amastris, not quite hefty enough of voice, although she can certainly sing and act.
Lawrence Zazzo had the most difficult task in the mezzo secundo uomo role of Arsamenes. As the great Tessi Tura noted, Christopher Robson's performance in this role in 1985 was groundbreaking, a butch counter-tenor in a romantic role. Zazzo still doesn't quite have Robson's theatrical skills, but he was pretty convincing as a randy adult man in love, as well as singing splendidly, keeping up with Kelly at all turns, including the terrific act three row. Graeme Danby could have done with a touch more comic bravura as Elviro, as could Neal Davies as old bore Ariodates, but both are fine singers.
Noel Davies kept the orchestra sprightly rather than exhilarating, but always in good style.