The first American production of any of Michael Tippett's five operas was Sarah Caldwell's The Ice Break for the Opera Company of Boston in 1979. In 1991, BU students did The Knot Garden. This year, Opera Boston scheduled the first Boston production of The Midsummer Marriage, Tippett's first opera (completed in 1952, after six years of work). But Opera Boston folded. So Gil Rose, Opera Boston's artistic director and music director of Boston Modern Orchestra Project, with the support of Randoph Fuller, former board member of Opera Boston (and a former Phoenix opera critic), presented Midsummer Marriage in concert at Jordan Hall on November 10. It was a thrilling, if exhausting, event.
Tippett, alas, wrote his own librettos, which compromise his exhilarating musical inventiveness. Although they're not the only remarkable passages in Midsummer Marriage, the four seasonal "Ritual Dances" are practically its only music ever excerpted, probably because they're wordless. This music doesn't sound like anyone else: modern in harmony and texture, but hardly Modernist; if anything, it's old-fashioned in its long-breathed sweep and earnest, rhapsodic, even ecstatic, fullness; heroic or delicately pastoral; tingling, yet almost naïvely without wit or irony. But oh, the words — ponderously, glutinously stiff ("I care not what you do"), flatly portentous ("I resent the fatal pressure of the world"), symbol-laden, then suddenly pedestrian ("O, Jack!"). Characters are either stereotypes or abstractions. Tippett's private nature mythology (alluding to the lovers' ritual trials of The Magic Flute and figures from The Waste Land) reminds me of Blake's long, obscure, perplexing "prophetic books," without Blake's inspired language.
Still, this performance was as stunning as the music. Under Rose, the unflagging orchestra poured out voluminous and crystalline sound — the impressive pickup chorus superbly directed by the uncredited Beth Willer. As the central lovers, tenor Julius Ahn and soprano Sara Heaton sang with white-hot fervor — Heaton with radiant lyric warmth (demanding "not Love but Truth"), Ahn with unexpected stentorian power (though unrelievedly grim for someone singing about "summer morning dancing in my heart"). Baritone Robert Honeysucker and mezzo-soprano Lynn Torgove were luxury casting as the He- and She-Ancients. Baritone David Kravitz projected the most nuanced character as Fisher King, Heaton's uncomprehending capitalist father, with delightful soprano Deborah Selig and tenor Matthew Dibattista as his pawns, the (now) embarrassingly conventional 1950s suburban lovers. But mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle, entering late, stole the show as Madame Sosostris, the haunted clairvoyant pained under the weight of her own clarity.
The intermission was full of rumors about more post–Opera Boston opera in the works.