One of the more interesting aspects of the excellent (if limited) Barbara Hepworth show at Tate Britain was the inclusion of some rare images from the original Covent Garden production of Michael Tippett’s 1955 opera, The Midsummer Marriage. Although I’ve seen revivals, I hadn’t realised until now that Hepworth had designed the sets, costumes and props for a show whose libretto (by Tippett) was memorably criticised as ‘one of the worst in the 350-year history of opera.’
And indeed, Tippett’s mash-up of The Magic Flute, Jungian Psychology, Parsifal (Eschenbach more than Wagner) The Fisher King, Shakespeare’s Dream and The Waste Land is still barely comprehensible even in our post-Laingian, knit-your-own-archetypal-mytho-philosophy age. The music has fared better, highlighting Tippett’s mid-period return to a romantic lyrical tonality and is, I think, some of the best work from a composer who another critic damned with the faintest of praise: ‘Unlike Wagner, Tippett does not provide music of enough quality to allow one to overlook textual absurdities and commonplaces.‘
The bad taste that lingered after the original ROH outing may be the reason why there is so little remaining documentation of the production.
From what there is, it seems Hepworth added her own brand of post-war, futuristic Flash Gordon paranoia to the already heady mix: the set a dystopian vision of classical ruin, and costumes – mini-toga ra-ra skirts and sandals for the boys, martial panoply and coal-scuttle hats for the girls – that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in Ming the Mighty’s Imperial Palace.
The last production I saw of the work had the cast dressed as cabbage patch kids all set for some munchkin-style, down home hootenannery so a return to Hepworth’s neo-classical vision would be a distinct improvement. As the certainties of the post-Cold War era crumble, maybe it’s time for a revival of the art Herbert Read memorably described as ‘The Geometry of Fear.’
But, as they say, that’s another story.