By Stan Meares
The British operatic repertory has been further strengthened both at home [the UK] and in the USA by Michael Tippett. His operas tend to take on an international or perhaps transatlantic stance rather than a national one, and reflect a very individual and sometimes idiosyncratic outlook on life. How posterity will take to his libretti is one of those imponderables. They have been subjected to much intellectual analysis both individually and as an evolving cycle. Personally I have grave reservations about them and the validity of the underlying philosophy, possibly because I gladly admit that much of the worthy exposition about them goes right over my head. But there can be no doubt about the effectiveness of four out of the five, and that is what really matters. Let the intellectuals and musicologists argue. What makes opera survive is having sufficient numbers of ordinary people clapping vigorously. My guess is that this will continue to happen and this is the basis of my brief comments.
Sir Michael composing some of his glorious music.
The easiest by far to understand is the Homeric King Priam. It has a specific pacifist message (an uncompromising Tippett went to prison as a conscientious objector during the war). The classic tale of the fall of Troy is cast with the eternal figures of Priam, Hector and Paris together with Achilles and Patroclus. Interlaced are the immortals. But unlike in Monteverdi where they are physically portrayed, Tippett cleverly frames the goddesses Aphrodite, Hera and Athene as the respective alter egos of Helen, Hecuba and Andromache. Only in Hermes, the link between the worlds, is there a traditional portrayal. Though it drags a trifle in the third Act, the drama unfolds majestically and irrevocably to its devastating conclusion. One must be hard-hearted indeed to be un-moved despite the somewhat harsh palate Tippett provides. In King Priam there is one of the great moments of modern opera – the terrifying war cry of Achilles on the death of Patroclus.
His first (mature) opera, The Midsummer Marriage, and his last one, New Year, are works of exceptional and formidable imagination, both influenced by Die Zauberflöte. As with the Mozart, in The Midsummer Marriage, we have trials and two contrasting couples, one on a high mental plane, one distinctly earthy. A neo-supernatural element is established by a temple where abide two Ancients, while an intermediary zone is created by a clairvoyant. Base worldliness is represented by the bride’s ruthless businessman father. As a departure from the Mozart, formalised dance plays an important part (The Ritual Dances). The score is luxurious and quite enthralling in it’s effects. Like King Priam, it drags a little in the final Act, but though the philosophy and storyline can still baffle and be the subject of numerous interpretations, the opera sparkles with spontaneity and without inhibition to make for a spirit raising experience. I believe it to be a masterpiece.
New Year (a more appropriate title would have been New Year’s Eve?) is the antithesis of the Midsummer opera. The differences include some loss of spontaneity, an inconsistent score and evidence of Hollywood "trash culture". Again, there is a quest for enlightenment and an urge for the leading male to rescue the leading female in an inversion of Fidelio. Again there is a choice – to escape to sanctuary or to return to the cruel world of reality and responsibility for others. The two worlds are clear in Terror Town (urban USA) and a futuristic computerised Nowhere Tomorrow with its spaceship linking the two, driven by its symphatetic and perceptive pilot. The important dance idiom is less formalised this time, more integrated; and the dramatic climax with the choice of love or duty has magical, breathtaking moments. The music is not difficult to assimilate but is extremely mixed somewhat as in The Ice Break and does not, I think, quite rise to the needs of the final love duet and dramatic climax. But its sheer sincerity should ensure its acceptance.
The difference in style and approach in the two operas following King Priam is astonishing. Gone is the brilliant conceptual approach of The Midsummer Marriage and disciplines of King Priam. In their place we seem to have opera by formula, as if designed by computer, and both operas show a worrying strain of trendiness – though quite incongruously both are patently sincere. In The Knot Garden for example it looks to me as if Tippett wrote down a number of stock characters – including a psychiatrist, a homosexual, a woman’s libber, a Negro and so on and then designed a plot around them. At the heart of this opera is psycho-analysis, as a Prospero-like characted attempts to solve the many personal problems present in a kind of reworking of The Tempest. Personally I find it very hard to accept the way Americans seem to turn to a "shrink" as we would visit the dentist. In my experience common-sense and willpower provide solutions that mumbo jumbo cannot. I am therefore not symphatetic to the opera’s very ethos. Yet the music has much consistency, even allowing for the blues and it is dramatically viable. In a series of revivals both for full and reduced score it has invariable made excellent theatre and as such it should stand the test of time.
The following The Ice Break will not, I suspect, so stand, with its slant towards American trash culture. In this case it seems as if Tippett wrote down racism, urban trauma, generation gap, drugs, Soviet oppression and then created his plot. By itself the music has much merit despite its mish-mash effect. It has one splendid "number". But the libretto ignores the elementary requirements of opera-production. Like Delius’ Fennimore and Gerda, a regular opera house flop, it has an exciting potential as a TV opera where most of the problems will become marginalised.
ã Stan Meares
This is an extract from the article "From Grimes to Baa-Baa – An opera-goer celebrates fifty years of British opera", printed in British Music vol. 16 (1994), published by the British Music Society. This journal can be bought from the Society for £4.50 (+ postage if you are outside the UK). Follow this link if you are interested in this and other BMS publications.
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