LPO/Gardner The Midsummer Marriage review – Tippett’s opera thrills in stupendous performance

Royal Festival Hall, London
In his opening concert as the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s principal conductor, Edward Gardner brought home the heady, almost narcotic quality of Tippett’s music

Edward Gardner chose Tippett for his opening concert as the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s principal conductor, with a performance of The Midsummer Marriage, the composer’s first opera, premiered in 1955. Marking both the start of an already assured artistic collaboration that promises much, and the vindication, by and large, of a work that can still divide opinion, this was in many ways a great occasion.

‘A performance that overrode any qualms’: Edward Gardner conducts Michael Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage
‘A performance that overrode any qualms’ … Edward Gardner conducts Michael Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage Photograph: Mark Allan/LPO

Much has been made of disparities between the greatness of the score and Tippett’s own intractable libretto, which overlays a narrative not dissimilar to Mozart’s Magic Flute with portentous Jungian symbolism, beneath which the dramaturgy all too frequently buckles (though it is by no means the only major opera to be saddled with a problem text). Deeming it an outright masterpiece, however, Gardner gave us a performance that overrode any qualms by bringing home the heady, almost narcotic quality of the music.

The conducting, playing and choral singing (from the combined forces of the London Philharmonic Choir and ENO Chorus) can only be described as stupendous. The richness both of sound and detail in the orchestration, delineating the teeming flux of nature and Tippett’s view of man’s mystic-erotic union with it, really got under your skin. The power of the choral commentaries was similarly overwhelming, nowhere more so than in the thrilling exultation of Fire in Summer, the last of the ritual dances.

Toby Spence as Jack and Jennifer France as Bella
Great performances … Toby Spence as Jack and Jennifer France as Bella. Photograph: Mark Allan/LPO

The cast, however, was a bit uneven. Robert Murray’s voice, disappearing beneath the orchestra at some of the climaxes, is fractionally too small for Mark, and I would prefer a warmer sound than Rachel Nicholls’ slightly metallic tone as Jenifer, fine artist though she is. The great performances came from Toby Spence and Jennifer France as Jack and Bella, touching, witty and characterised with wonderful subtlety. Ashley Riches was the impressively arrogant King Fisher, Claire Barnett-Jones the world-weary, dark-toned Sosostris, Susan Bickley and Joshua Bloom the enigmatic, self-assured Ancients.

Ultimately, though, the evening belonged to Gardner, his orchestra and choruses, outstanding throughout, and simply unforgettable.

Available on BBC Sounds until 24 October.


Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

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