But you only have to listen to the music to be entranced. From the opening moments of Sir Andrew Davis's performance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Proms in the Royal Albert Hall on 16 August 2013, you knew that you were in for a very special occasion. The BBC had assembled a very strong cast, with Paul Groves and Erin Wall as the Mark and Jenifer, David Wilson-Johnson (standing in for Peter Sidhom) as King Fisher, Ailish Tynan and Allan Clayton as Bella and Jack, Catherine Wyn-Rogers as Sosostris, and Madeleine Shaw and David Soar as the Ancients, with the BBC Singers and the BBC Symphony Chorus. The performance was billed as semi-staged, directed by Kenneth Richardson.
The stars of the show, though, were undoubtedly Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, bringing out all of Tippett's dancing rhythms and giving a lovely sheen to the complex orchestral textures. The music for the entrances of the Ancients, with the celesta, were simply magical. Without any dancers, we were left to our own imaginations for the Ritual Dances, and Davis brought out the full range of drama and danger in these pieces. I had forgotten how richly and imaginatively they were written, but throughout the performance I came back to Tippett's rhythms. Davis clearly loves the opera and he and the orchestra gave us Tippett as his rhapsodic and entrancing best.
The roles of Mark and Jenifer are tricky ones, they are archetypes more than protagonists and once the long first act is over, we hardly see them again. Both singers need to be capable of singing Tippett's complex, rapturous coloratura whilst being able to carry over the large orchestra, a particular requirement with the orchestra on the concert platform. Paul Groves was ideal for Mark. He has what I think of as rather an old fashioned voice, with a focussed edge to it which can cut through orchestral texture without pressing the voice too much and causing the tone to lose focus. He sang with that gorgeous straight tone familiar from his performances as Gerontius, moving flexibly round Tippett's vocal lines and seemingly having no trouble at all rising over the orchestra without pushing the voice. His interaction with the Ancients at the opening was just on the right side of pert and his outburst of 'I love, I love, I love' was rapturous. This was re-captured in the closing moments, when both Mark and Jenifer have a short, but important contribution to crown the proceedings. He looked, perhaps, a little mature for 'a young man of unknown parentage' but this mattered not in a concert performance and his performance was wonderfully ardent and enthusiastic in the right way.
Erin Wall, making her Proms debut, sang with a finely honed, slim but focussed tone. An experienced Fiordiligi, Konstanze and Donna Anna, she floated over the orchestra rather than cutting through it, singing Jenifer's coloratura with beautiful care and attention. Her performance on stage seemed a little stiff, as if she wasn't quite comfortable with the semi-staging. But Jenifer is an awkward character and Joan Sutherland (who created the role) famously did not really understand the opera.
David Wilson-Johnson, standing in at a weeks notice as King Fisher, was returning to a role he'd last sung 25 years ago. You couldn't really tell, Wilson-Johnson gave a masterly performance, full of character. His King Fisher had all the bombast needed and we could hear all the words. This was true of all three singers in the character episodes (Wilson-Johnson, Ailish Tynan and Allan Clayton) and helped to establish the drama. Wilson-Johnson combines singing 20th century music with a career with period ensembles. This shows in his performance where his navigating of the actual notes was nicely accurate and thankfully lacking that element of bluster. Wilson-Johnson is a fine singing actor and his performance was a master-class in how to make character work in a space as big as the Royal Albert Hall.
The lighter couple, Jack and Bella, were equally well cast with Allan Clayton and Ailish Tynan. Tynan brought a delightful pertness to the role, filling out the character and charming entirely. It is Bella who gets some of Tippett's arch colloquialisms, dealt with in dead-pan manner by Tynan. The interchange (between Bella and King Fisher) 'Who's Jack? Oh - he's a honey' remains one of my favourite in all opera and Tynan was equally delightfully in Bella's paen to artificial womanhood, with her mirror and face powder. But Tynan also sang the notes, with a bright focussed tone which brought out the ancestors of Tippett's character and brought Bella alive. Her interactions with Wilson-Johnson were just right, hinting at the long back story to their relationship. Tynan was also ably abetted by Allan Clayton as her boyfriend Jack. Clayton sang with lovely tone and shape, making a mark even though the role is quite small. Clayton is another artist who has impressed in both baroque and contemporary performance. His combination of vocal flexibility and penetrating (in the nicest possible way) tone, being just right for both.
David Soar and Madeleine Shaw were suitably grave and mysterious as the Ancients, with Soar bringing a a nice touch of asperity to the character which set of the dark and dignified tones of his voice. Shaw was equally dark and mysterious but added touches of humour in her interactions with Tynan.
Catherine Wyn-Rogers as Sosostris sang her aria from the organ console above the orchestra, which had a wonderfully dramatic effect especially when combined with the striking kaftan that Wyn-Rogers was wearing. But the placement so far behind the orchestra was a little inhibiting to the sound. Nonetheless, Wyn-Rogers joined the ranks of Helen Watts and Alfreda Hodgson in delivering a fine, dramatic and highly mysterious account of this fascinating but complex aria.
The smaller roles were all finely taken by singers from the BBC Singers, Michael Bundy, Christopher Bowen, Charles Gibbs and Margaret Cameon. The chorus, combining the BBC Singers with the BBC Symphony Chorus, was perhaps slightly larger than ideal but they sang with a will and clearly carried away with the drama. The off-stage chorus in act two was sung by the BBC Singers.
But it is to Davis and the orchestra that I will return in my memory, giving the work a glow and contributing some very fine orchestral playing.
Doing a semi-staging of an opera like The Midsummer Marriage is a thankless task as a large chunk of the action has to be missed off, we had no Strephon and no dancers. But director Kenneth Richardson marshalled his forces imaginatively, giving them entrances and exits and and suggesting the drama. He also benefitted from the fact that his singers clearly interacted with each other and in dramatic terms made it far more than a concert.
This was a long evening (6.30pm to 10.10pm, including two intervals), but a glorious one. The resources needed to perform the opera mean that it is only every likely to be a special occasion work. So we must be doubly glad that the BBC decided to perform it. Andrew Davis and his forces gave us a truly mesmerising account of Tippett's idiosyncratic midsummer rapture.
Cast and production information:
Paul Groves: Mark, Erin Wall: Jenifer, David Wilson-Johnson: King Fisher, Ailish Tynan: Bella, Allan Clayton: Jack, Sosostris: Catherine Wyn-Rogers, David Soar: He-Ancient, Madeleine Shaw: She-Ancient, Michael Bundy: Half-Tipsy Man, Christopher Bowen: Dancing Man, Charles Gibbs: A Man, Margaret Cameron: A Girl. BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra. Sir Andrew Davis: Conductor, Kenneth Richardson: Stage Director. Friday, 16 August 2013, BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, London