BMOP gives worthy advocacy to Tippett’s unwieldy “Midsummer Marriage”

November 11, 2012 at 6:48 pm

By Keith Powers

MIchael Tippet's opera "The Midsummer Marriage" was performed by Boston Modern Orchestra Project Saturday night at Jordan Hall

One door closes, another opens. With the demise of the ambitious company Opera Boston last year, director Gil Rose lost a chance to explore some of the gems in the outermost reaches of the stage repertory.

Fear not. Rose simply brought one such raritiy, Michael Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage—slated last season for Opera Boston but left unperformed—to his other adventurous ensemble, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. BMOP performed a semi-staged version of the mid-20th century opera Saturday evening at Jordan Hall.

Defying category, and burdened by a bumptious libretto, Midsummer Marriage has had trouble maintaining a spot on any company’s roster. But its glorious score, laced with startlingly complex counterpoint and icy-clear vocal styling, made it a perfect vehicle for the no-challenge-too-great BMOP and its inimitable leader.

Rose assembled a strong cast of singers—necessary, as nearly all the half dozen vocal roles demanded versatility and stamina. The BMOP orchestra, always lean and attentive, was particularly facile for this performance. And Rose brought together a freelance chorus that ably followed instruction and sang its own demanding part with strength under the direction of Beth Willer.

Tenor Julius Ahn and soprano Sara Heaton sang the lead roles in this ungainly drama that loosely mimics Mozart’s Magic Flute, but only after a jolt from Carl Jung, T.S. Eliot, The Golden Bough and the Communist Manifesto. The plot centers around two marrying couples, who interrupt a masque-like celebration and upset the continuity of tradition.

Bride-to-be Jenifer (Heaton) delays the proceedings, enters a gate and climbs to the light; groom Mark (Ahn) descends to the dark. While they’re gone, their mysterious actions need to be dissected, investigated and debated. They return, changed, but if anyone knows how, they won’t tell. Opera ensues.

Baritone David Kravitz sang brilliantly as the King Fisher, father to one of the brides who fails to understand that he’s dealing with the gods, and acts like he wants to grab an unruly suitor by the ear to teach him what-for. Soprano Deborah Selig vocalized characterfully as Bella, another bride to be and secretary to the King Fisher. Mezzo Lynn Torgove and baritone Robert Honeysucker occupied static roles as the ancients with nobility, and minor parts were well served by tenor Matthew DiBattista and the celebrated mezzo Joyce Castle.

The score makes this work special. Toss-away melodies layered contrapuntally are not only given to the singers, but work their way through the orchestra and into the choral writing as well. Distinguished solos through the wind and horn sections made the lengthy evening worthwhile. Rose approached the score’s rhythmic complexities by breaking down the music into understandable units—what was clearly a conducting challenge, normally worked out with multiple performances by a pit orchestra, was delivered deftly.

Stylistic demands on the soloists abounded. Castle, a veteran of much new music, sang an unending, vibrato filled, slow-tempo aria as Madame Sosotris with quivering exactness. Heaton, a lyric voice with tremendous polish, returned to the stage after a more than one-hour break to launch immediately into a mezzo-piano coloratura passage, which she also handled deftly. Ahn, a sturdy lyric instrument, faced challenges in range, especially the upper registers, throughout.

Midsummer Marriage suffers greatly from Tippett’s own sprawling and verbose libretto. Textually schizophrenic, at times it sounded Homeric (“Sailing the swan-white sky”), at times existential (“fate and freedom propound paradox”) and elsewhere proletarian (“I’ll work overtime”). One could forgive the crazy quilt plot if the language were tighter, and some scenes briefer (Selig refreshes her makeup, singing about each application, longer than a cheerleader headed to the prom).

The staging stripped the work of its dance component, but hearing the music that accompanies those interludes without the visual distraction might have been a plus. There were enough complexities to go around anyway. There are many works that are a delight to hear once: Midsummer Marriage is one.

 

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