Boston opera buffs were dealt a hard blow last December when Opera Boston, a company known for innovative productions of less familiar repertory, announced it was shutting down amid a financial and managerial crisis. But the company’s ambitious plans were not entirely sent to the scrap heap of operatic history: Sir Michael Tippett’s opera, The Midsummer Marriage – planned as the centerpiece of the company’s 2012 season – was reconceived as a concert production Saturday at Jordan Hall by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP).
This was more than a phoenix rising from the ashes of a fallen company. Tippett’s work comes with its own problematic history, including six-year gestation and a 1955 premiere at Convent Garden that was roundly thrashed by critics and the public alike. It has received only three stagings in the U.S., including a New York City Opera version in 1993. But it has gradually been recognized as an important, unique contribution to the 20th-century canon — dense, idiosyncratic, yet full of resonance.
Behind Saturday’s revival was Gil Rose, Opera Boston’s former artistic director, who also leads BMOP. In presenting this version, he received help from some former Opera Boston board members, including founder Randolph Fuller, who stepped up as its main sponsor.
Rose saw in this performance an inherent tradeoff: there would be no sets, lighting design or dancers yet it would "not so much focus on what you’re seeing as what you’re hearing,” he said in an interview last week. “What I’ve been focusing on all week is how spectacular the music is and what courage it would take to write some of this music. I think there are flaws in the piece but the bulk of the gesture and the sheer opulence and brilliance of the piece far outweigh the downsides.”
The most prevalent criticism of Tippett's operas is that the librettos are weak. He wrote the libretto for The Midsummer Marriage while infatuated with the psychological theories of Carl Jung and his concept of archetypes. The allusive narrative, such as it is, concerns two young couples going through various mystical trials, much to the consternation of their parents. It has moments of high-minded whimsy and silliness but not much ever happens. It also contains some very opulent, virtuosic music, which pushes singers to their vocal limits.
The narrative difficulties were partly sidestepped in this concert version, which turned the work into a kind of extended oratorio, placing ideas and emotions over plot. The cast – chosen partly for their larger voices – certainly had a heavy lift. Not only did they work to make themselves heard over some unforgivingly thick orchestrations, but they had to bring some nuance to inherently flat characters. The largely outstanding cast included Sara Heaton as Jennifer, Julius Ahn as her fiance Mark, David Kravitz as King Fisher, Deborah Selig as Bella, tenor Matthew Dibattista as Jack and mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle as Sosostris.
Critics and audiences will continue to disagree over this hugely idiosyncratic work, but at a time when many opera companies are sticking with the safe and predictable, BMOP’s approach could offer a model for other new-music ensembles looking to branch out. Rose described the production as a “mid-fall marriage” between the worlds of new music and opera. “There wasn’t a lot of crossover between my BMOP constituency and my Opera Boston constituency,” he said. “This gave me a chance to reach out to the Opera Boston constituency with a BMOP hand as it were.”