Magazine article The Spectator

Opera: The Ice Break; Madama Butterfly

Magazine article The Spectator

Opera: The Ice Break; Madama Butterfly

Article excerpt

The Ice Break

Birmingham Opera Company

Madama Butterfly

Royal Opera House

The Ice Break is Michael Tippett's fourth opera, first produced at Covent Garden in 1977 and rarely produced anywhere since, though there is an excellent recording of it. Its brevity (75 minutes) rather took the wind out of the Royal Opera's sails, since they had envisaged a full evening's piece. So, I imagine, did its wackiness, though more extreme things in that line were to follow from Tippett. There are numerous ingredients in The Ice Break , but it gives the impression that its composer was so fascinated by all of them that he restlessly moves from one to another, leaving his audience to see whether they can make sense of them. As with his previous opera, The Knot Garden, almost all the characters have strange names -- Lev, Yuri, Olympion, Astron etc. The crowd plays a very large role too, as suits the BOC, and it can't be said that the musical style of the work is unified either. The text, Tippett-written as always, mixes the trendy, slangy and vatic in a disconcerting way. Despite all of that, I emerged energised and fascinated by the intensity of Tippett's search for a vision, almost certain that he hadn't found one, but more absorbed by his failure than I would be by most composers' success.

The production, perhaps BOC's most ambitious to date, took place in the B12 Warehouse, in a part of Birmingham unique, so far as my travels to the various BOC sites go, for its desolation and air of hopeless collapse. Perhaps it justifies the importing into the production of a set of contemporary anxieties that complicate an opera already over-burdened by its concerns: for the warehouse is transformed into an airport terminal, and as the audience arrive they are treated as if arriving at Terminal 3. And throughout the opera, which as usual has rapid changes of location, the chorus, enacting several roles, enjoys shoving the spectators around, hugging selected ones, being bossy. I think this trope, though it is the most obvious way to involve members of the local community in the action, has been used enough now. As have overpoweringly bright lights to illuminate the scenes of action. But one doesn't go to BOC for any kind of comfort.

What one does go for, and is never disappointed, is continuous surprises, superb singing and acting, and nowadays the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra playing resplendently under difficult conditions, with the unflappable conductor Andrew Gourlay. This isn't perhaps the way to get inside a piece, but it works to inspire interest in it and to show that opera, all considerations of elitism aside, is both an extremely demanding art form and an electrifyingly thrilling one. …

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