Magazine article The Spectator

The More the Better

Magazine article The Spectator

The More the Better

Article excerpt


The more the better

The Knot Garden


It seems a strange way to celebrate the centenary of Michael Tippett's birth, as many people have remarked, to have multiple productions of his third opera The Knot Garden, while neglecting the more approachable first two, though the Royal Opera will be mounting The Midsummer Marriage next season. Yet for those who have been to each of the productions of The Knot Garden, the first by Scottish Opera, the second by Music Theatre Wales, and now the third, a one-night 'concert staging' at the Barbican, all of them excellent in quite different ways, the work is likely to have grown in stature, and I for one would welcome the chance to see it several times more in the near future.

The thing that struck us all coming back to the opera after a long gap was how redolent of the decade in which it made its appearance it was. With opera's first openly gay couple (though they get on badly enough to please most Spectator writers on the subject), a female freedom fighter, a self-doubting psychotherapist, and an eclectic musical idiom ranging from the blues with electric guitar to a Schubert Lied, and all embedded in a fairly aggressive modernist idiom, it launched opera in the 1970s with nearly uncanny prescience. Yet that aspect of the work, while not exactly fading (nor being responsible for the work fading), seems now less remarkable or irksome than it did, because there is so much else in it that is still fresh and which picks up on themes characteristic of Tippett, as figured in the motto '. . . simply the thing I am shall make me live'. While Midsummer Marriage concerns aspirations of a Magic Flute type, together with our relationship to the seasons and to Nature in general, and King Priam is mythological and full of the loathing which Tippett felt for war, at the same time as he recognised its glamour, The Knot Garden examines personal relationships, perhaps in a particularly topical way, but moving through the patterns that individuals compulsively enact to the archetypes that lie behind them, doing this by relating as many elements as will fit to The Tempest. The most paradoxical feature of the work is that while it puts relationships under scrutiny, it eschews close investigation of any of them: we are to take it that as soon as we see the kind of thing that's going on we will be able to supply the details. Tippett clearly wanted the work to be synoptic, while not going in for length. Concentration is of the essence, the luxuriance which his music often manifested was to be almost wilfully pruned. …

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