Before a note was played, Saturday night’s Boston Modern Orchestra Project performance of Michael Tippett’s first mature opera, “The Midsummer Marriage,” generated more good will and broader public curiosity than the average season-opener. That’s because the now-defunct Opera Boston had this rarely spotted Tippett opera on its agenda long before the company abruptly folded last December.
Conveniently enough, Gil Rose, Opera Boston’s former artistic director, also leads BMOP, and so, with help from some of Opera Boston’s former board members, the Tippett project was plucked from the wreckage and reconceived for Saturday night’s concert performance in Jordan Hall. Everyone seemed grateful for the chance to encounter this work after all.
Tippett had become fascinated by Jungian psychology prior to embarking on this opera in 1946. (The work premiered at Covent Garden in 1955.) The libretto unfolds mostly on a mythic plane, its characters seemingly intended as archetypes or symbols, drawing inspiration from T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” Jungian psychology, and a dense accumulation of ancient myths. What the work has going for it is its intensely lyrical score, with acres of melody and scintillating dances that move weightlessly despite their own heavy load of allegory. The music also flows from one scene into another with the fluidity of a dream.
And it is perhaps this register of dreams that is most directly addressed by Tippett’s libretto, written by the composer himself. It is also, alas, portentous and leaden. One could sketch out the libretto’s themes in diagrams, juxtaposing the qualities of the two couples at its center — the spiritualized Jenifer and Mark, preparing to marry and each undergoing individual offstage journeys, versus the more grounded Bella and Jack, a secretary and a mechanic, plotting their futures together. One could add to this the generational conflicts, the pitched battle between the ancient wisdom and modern materialism, fate and free will, the apparent transparency of the self and the complex hidden path of individual personality formation.
But what you get in the end is a libretto fundamentally too bogged down with obscure symbolism to powerfully resonate as myth, and too patently allegorical to draw a listener into actually caring about the fates of individual characters. My published copy of the libretto has a total of 66 footnotes explicating fleeting references to Orphic tablets from the fourth century BCE, Welsh creation myths, occult numerology, Hindu sacred art, and much more. It feels, in short, like a libretto written for Jung’s collective unconscious more than that of any individual listener, and it’s clearly what has kept this opera out of broader circulation.
There is, however, a sense of inner necessity in Tippett’s music itself. And there was plenty to enjoy in Saturday’s performance, especially in the singing of a strong cast. Sara Heaton brought to the role of Jenifer, who rebuffs her groom in the first act, a sense of principled spiritual remove and winning amounts of cool yet lush soprano tone. King Fisher, her protective and censorious father, was sung by David Kravitz with vocal heft and earthy resolve. Julius Ahn sang the Tamino-esque role of Mark with ardency if also at times a somewhat distracting vocal choppiness. Deborah Selig displayed an impressively nimble, lustrous soprano in a well-delineated performance as Bella, and Matthew DiBattista was solid in the enigmatic role of Jack.
Robert Honeysucker and Lynn Torgove ably took on the two-dimensional roles of the Ancients, dueling with King Fisher over the fate of Jenifer. In a climactic scene, King Fisher summons the clairvoyant Sosostris into the fray. Out walked mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle, in a slow and purposeful gait, deeply inhabiting her character as she delivered a set of chilling, oracular pronouncements. It was a brief but extremely effective performance.
Rose led the large orchestra in a reading of the score that honored the sparkling, richly melodic vein in Tippett’s writing, the impressionistic melding of ancient and modern sound worlds, and the admirable fluidity of his craft. The ritual dance numbers took on a life of their own, and the buoyant singing of the chorus helped drive many of the evening’s most vibrant moments.
Even if this opera remains an acquired taste, it was heartening to see such a strong audience turnout on Saturday, a tribute in part to Rose’s own perseverance in the wake of Opera Boston’s demise. One can only hope this is the first of many such expressions of the company’s exploratory mission, living on at BMOP and beyond.