The BBC Symphony Orchestra has been doing Tippett proud. Over the past year it has presented a series of six concerts featuring the four symphonies together with a selection of other works and, as a final and extravagant gesture, added a concert performance of his first opera, The Midsummer Marriage, as one of the highlights of the BBC Proms.
All this activity matters. Since Tippett’s death in 1998, his music has entered that deadly twilight zone where performances become few and far between – in contrast to the increasing attention paid to his contemporary, Britten, whose centenary this year is being celebrated in a worldwide programme of events.
The future of the operas, in particular, hangs in the balance. Tippett wrote the librettos for them himself and the result is like fighting one’s way through thickets of psychobabble. “Flies not my spirit to the swan-white sky?” asks Jennifer in The Midsummer Marriage. “No” is the answer. This is pretentious nonsense and no amount of throwing in references from Homer, T.S. Eliot, Jung and Shakespeare helps.
If that is all Tippett’s operas had to offer, they could be consigned to the bin now. But, unlike the down-to-earth Britten, Tippett was constantly striving to reach some higher plane, literally the “other world” in The Midsummer Marriage, and when his music takes off, it can be life-enhancing. Andrew Davis is the most clear-headed of Tippett interpreters, no mean feat in itself, and every detail of this seethingly complex score remained clear, even as the massed forces of the BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra filled the hall with sound.
As the chosen couple, Paul Groves’s Mark struggled with some of Tippett’s rather optimistic vocal writing, but Erin Wall sang Jennifer’s role with beauty and ease. Ailish Tynan and Allan Clayton were excellent as the everyday duo, Bella and Jack. Madeleine Shaw and David Soar did what they could with the dull roles of the Ancients. David Wilson-Johnson made a sturdy King Fisher, but the oracular pronouncements of Catherine Wyn-Rogers’s Sosostris needed to carry more strongly from behind the orchestra. So much tedious amateur philosophising, so many radiant musical ideas. What is to become of Tippett’s operas?