CHICAGO — It was wintry outside -- AccuWeather's RealFeel was below zero -- but a fire burned on the Civic Opera House stage here Monday night. Two fires, actually. One was real. Fire is the last ritual dance, the final magical transformation of Michael Tippett's out-of-this-or-any-other-operatic-world "The Midsummer Marriage," so flames flared. The heat, though, was in the summer-infused music -- as sunny and luminously warm as any written for the lyric stage.
For 50 years, people have been wondering what to make of this muddled, magnificent opera. For that matter, they've been wondering what to make of the British composer, long considered -- and dismissed as -- an eccentric, if an occasionally glorious one.
Sadly, director Peter Hall's clunky new production of "The Midsummer Marriage" for Lyric Opera of Chicago, like many before it, is more muddle. The company has a loyal audience, and at the beginning of the evening, despite unenthusiastic reviews, the house was full. By the second intermission, though, there was no wait for coffee or wine but long lines at the coat checks.
Even so, Lyric Opera's performance, conducted by Andrew Davis and sung by an appealing young cast, proved sublime. It offered one more reason why it will be necessary to try yet again with "The Midsummer Marriage." Someone, somewhere, will find a way to make the young lovers Mark and Jenifer, on their wedding day, seem not quite so silly as they transform carnal love into "divine consuming love" with the supernatural help of the He-Ancient, the She-Ancient and the clairvoyant Sosostris.
This has been a Tippett year, a celebration of the centenary of the British composer's birth, but it hasn't been a very satisfying one. There has been little in the way of major Tippett offerings, the biggest deal being this production of his first opera and a simultaneous staging of it by the Royal Opera in London.
The other four operas have been all but ignored. The symphonies, string quartets and piano sonatas haven't been popping up on many programs. Nor has the amazing late oratorio "The Mask of Time." Even the big recordings have been repackagings.
For what there's been in America, we can thank Davis, who has made a cause of Tippett. He began the celebrations in Walt Disney Concert Hall in January with a radiant Los Angeles Philharmonic performance of "The Rose Lake," Tippett's last major work, written when he was 90. Davis also brought Tippett's most popular score, the antiwar oratorio "A Child of Our Time," to the Chicago Symphony in June.
Tippett's aims were lofty. He was a searcher who always moved toward higher ground. He saw music as he saw society, as a struggle for good. A pacifist, he endured imprisonment during World War II rather than have to kill.
Perhaps what makes Tippett hardest to take is his weakness for Jung, which can turn his music and his prose archetype-heavy. But he also had a weakness for Shakespeare, for Purcell, for Beethoven -- and an inspired way of putting them all together. A soft sensuality, moreover, allies with a harder-edge intellectuality in his artistic personality. The combination is sometimes on the goofy side, but at its best it helps produce a genuine sense of wonder.
"The Midsummer Marriage" is a masterpiece of that unstoppable, all-consuming lyricism, and it is one of the bravest operas I know. The fact is oft repeated that Tippett initially approached T.S. Eliot to write the libretto. The poet took one look at what Tippett proposed, threw his hands in the air and advised the composer to write the bloody thing himself.
Tippett did, without holding back.
Lyric Opera presented a panel of some of the production's participants, and at one point they were asked their favorite funny lines from the libretto. They answered amusingly, but I won't repeat their responses here (the conversation can be streamed or downloaded at the company's website) because they suffer too much from being taken out of musical context.
Those loopy lines, in fact, were exactly what was needed to inspire Tippett's otherworldly, chance-taking music, music not afraid to soar and soar some more. And what a wonderful job of soaring is heard in Chicago.
Where the production fails is in Hall's treating the whole thing as a dream. For nearly four hours, Mark lies in bed onstage (or gets up in his pajamas and watches the action). He's already prone as we enter the theater. At the very end, he gets up and dresses for the wedding.
There is much dance in "The Midsummer Marriage." Mark and Jenifer enter the realm of the Ancients to participate in magic rituals. Hounds attack a hare; an otter, a fish; a hawk, a songbird. The dancers, choreographed by Wayne McGregor (who is also credited as directorial supervisor, since illness prevented Hall from overseeing the final rehearsals), are lithe. The choreography is banal.