The Midsummer Marriage at Lyric Opera

Among opera buffs the term “common repertory” is used to describe operas that are frequently performed and that you’re likely to hear. The common repertory changes over time and varies from place to place. There are operas and composers performed in France that you won’t hear anywhere other than France and operas and composers performed in Italy you won’t hear anywhere other than Italy.

Michael Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage is not in the common repertory and now I believe I know why.

As film critic Roger Ebert once said of the movie Brotherhood of the Wolf (Le Pacte des loups), The Midummer Marriage is “like an explosion in the genre factory”. Only not in a good way. Mix Renaissance English music, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, pop psychology and anthropology of the 1950’s, romantic comedy, stock commedia dell’arte characters shoe-horned into “modern” settings, and British romantic social commentary of the middle of the last century and you end up with The Midsummer Marriage—a sort of bargain-counter The Magic Flute.

The action of the opera takes place on Midsummer Night in the dreams of a young man who will be married the next day. A midsummer night’s dream. Get it? The dream is full of archetypal images, the prospective bride’s father, animals, symbols of flight and pursuit, initiation into the mysteries, and final bliss.

I don’t know whether I’ve mentioned it before but for quite a few years I gathered with some friends and we sang Medieval and Renaissance music together, mostly English, German, and Italian. Over the years we performed much of the available repertory from the era. There’s a characteristic sound or “feel” to German music. It sounds German and there’s a common quality that runs through it from the very years right down to the 19th century.

Tippett’s music sounds English, is highly influenced by English Renaissance composers William Byrd and Thomas Tallis and the slightly later Henry Purcell, and is frequently quite lovely, particularly in the choral sections. This shouldn’t be too surprising since Tippett, along with Ralph Vaughn Williams, was instrumental in re-introducing these composers to modern audiences.

May I mock the sets now? The first act set was dominated by two set-pieces: a large geometically-stylized female breast and a similarly geometrically-stylized phallic symbol. Get it? Edgy, ground-breaking stuff. If it’s 1950’s Britain. But, unfortunately, it’s the United States in the Naughties and it wouldn’t cause the flicker of an eyelash if the entire cast performed the whole work in the nude (which, fortunately, they didn’t).

Nearly the whole stage was covered with what appeared to be a circular shag rug. I really sympathize with the lead male dancer who spent some little time crawling on the floor, naked from the waist up and midthigh down. Major rug burns.

I do, however, want to put in a good word for the lighting effects. There was an eerie, genuinely magical aurora borealis effect created by projecting images on the enormous hair-like filaments growing from the stage (clearly apparent in the picture at right, which is from Act III). The effect of color change indicating the changing of the seasons was done primarily with lighting effects.

The cast was talented and did their best with the material at hand. Principles, chorus, and dancers all gave splendid performances. I was greatly reminded of the movie The Bandwagon. This opera was like the ponderous, pretentious “modern Faust” in the movie—with similar reactions from the audience. I hope the cast got to sing “I Love Louisa” in the hotel afterwards.

Note to prospective composers of opera: you didn’t spend all those years studying music to become a playwright. Hire a damned librettist! It will be well worth it. Unless your name is “Richard Wagner”, of course. Then write away!

The season so far: La Cenerentola, Manon Lescaut, The Midsummer Marriage. Advantage: La Cenerentola.

UPDATE: I see that John von Rhein, the Chicago Tribune music critic, agrees with me.

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