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BWW Review: THE MIDSUMMER MARRIAGE, Southbank Centre

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Edward Gardner makes a sparkling debut as LPO's new Principal Conductor

BWW Review: THE MIDSUMMER MARRIAGE, Southbank Centre

BWW Review: THE MIDSUMMER MARRIAGE, Southbank Centre In 1955 Michael Tippett introduced his first opera The Midsummer Marriage to a grey, post-war society desperate for some joy and optimism. It has divided the critics, with detractors pointing to the awkward libretto and fans in raptures with the sumptuous score. It is certainly a huge piece for the London Philharmonic Orchestra's new Principal Conductor, Edward Gardner, to conduct as his debut. However, the result was enthralling.

A young couple, Mark and Jenifer, must prevail against various confusions and challenges to move towards marriage, amid mystic symbolism and dense Jungian analysis. The singers must also negotiate Tippett's complicated coloratura whilst being able to project over the large orchestra. There were a few issues here, as the orchestra did drown out the soloists at points.

Robert Murray was a lyrical tenor as Mark, ardent, focused and with great diction, while Rachel Nicholls' warm soprano as Jenifer was poised and precise.

King Fisher, Jenifer's father, was sung by Ashley Riches; suave, bossy and authorative, Riches' extended solos in Act I were particularly impressive and he pulsed through to his tragicomic end with flair.

Act II focuses on Jack and Bella, a more down-to-earth couple. Jennifer France and Toby Spence are well-cast; France showed great wit and bright and bubbly enthusiasm and Spence demonstrated impressive vocal flexibility in the relatively small role. It's a shame that after asserting herself strongly by proposing to Jack, Bella seems so keen to stay at home doing the washing as soon as she is married. Tippett, perhaps, assumed this is what women want after years of war-time independence.

As a concert performance, the action is inevitably stripped back, with no dancers performing the simply beautiful Ritual Dances. However that did allow for a pure appreciation of the beauty and beautiful storytelling of these pieces.

Claire Barnett-Jones as Sosostris has a challenging aria but showed clarity and drama in her rendition alongside the soaring brass crescendos. As the Ancients, Susan Bickley and Joshua Bloom were suitably sombre and thoughtful.

It was the London Philharmonic Choir and English National Opera Chorus that provide the most wow-factor, enveloping the audience with incredible harmonies and showing great balance and power when necessary.

The piece has many complex themes and influences. Mozart's The Magic Flute, T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, English folk lore, Greek myths, A Midsummer Night's Dream and a dollop of Jungian analysis for good measure.

Tippett took advice from T.S Eliot and wrote the libretto himself. Even the sheer magic of the music cannot disguise that fact that it is not without issues; often clumsy and consistently obscure. It is not the easiest story to follow, if you can call it a story at all, and at nearly three and a half hours, this is a long evening.

However, the music is sublime, with an energy that rarely dips. The woodwinds shimmer like light on a midsummer day and the string section create an ethereal atmosphere. The London Philharmonic Orchestra handled Tippett's tricky rhythmic patterns well and conductor Edward Gardner brought out the almost luminous quality of the music. Gardner has obviously built up a very strong rapport with the players already. The huge joy and positivity of the final section left the audience with a lasting feeling of hope and optimism.

The Midsummer Marriage was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is now available on BBC Sounds.

The London Philharmonic's new season continues with Fantastic Symphony on 1 October

Photo Credit: Mark Allan


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