The musical world is celebrating the ‘big three' this year – Wagner, Verdi and Britten, and although none of Verdi's full-length operas have been given at this year's Proms, seven of Wagner's operas have (or will have been given after next Sunday's Parsifal), whilst Glyndebourne bring their epoch-making production of Billy Budd on 27 August.
The programming therefore of a complete performance of Tippett's first opera The Midsummer Marriage initially seemed incongruous, but given that his operas have fallen out of favour since his death in 1998, here was a rare chance to hear this fascinating work. Although it contains much ebullient, joyous music it's saddled with a libretto (by the composer) which dramatically makes little sense and contains such poetic turns of phrase as, "Sirius rising as the sun's wheel rolls over at the utter zenith. So the dog leaps to the bull whose blood and sperm are all fertility."
There are elements of The Magic Flute weaved into its structure about self-discovery, but much of it remains mystifying and I must confess that we'd be here all night if I tried to describe the plot, so I won't bother. True, the work made a far greater impact when I saw The Royal Opera's revival in 1995 – a new production by Graham Vick to celebrate the composer's 90th birthday – than it did here, stripped of the visual trappings of a full staging and therefore focussing the attention solely on the words and music, and in so doing highlighting Tippett's overblown dramaturgy.
It didn't help that Glyndebourne's sensational Billy Budd was still ringing in my ears from the week before, but given that the two works were premiered at Covent Garden only four years' apart (Billy Budd in 1951, and The Midsummer Marriage in 1995), it's hard not to compare the two, and despite the latter containing many flashes of musical inspiration, as a dramatic piece of music theatre, The Midsummer Marriage falls flat on its face.
Having said that, it's hard to imagine the piece receiving a better performance than it did here. Andrew Davis has been a major champion and exponent of Tippett's works for many years and he led a coruscating account of the score, quite superbly played by the BBCSO. The casting was as good as you'll get these days, although it's hard to empathise with the main characters Jennifer and Mark, as they disappear for most of the evening.
Canadian soprano Erin Wall was making her Proms debut as Jennifer and displayed a wonderfully secure and thrilling voice. As her partner Mark, Paul Groves sounded stretched in the upper reaches of the role, but the secondary characters were all superbly voiced, with notable contributions from Ailish Tynan and Allan Clayton (Bella and Jack), Madeleine Shaw and David Soar as the Ancients, and Catherine Wyn-Rogers as an Erda-like Sosostris. David Wilson-Johnson was a late replacement as King Fisher, but you would never have known as he sang with remarkable authority – his tone as full and resplendent as I remember from years' ago. The choral singing (BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus) was exceptional.