They are playing a game
Michael Tippett: The Knot Garden
Christopher Purves (Faber), Karen Cargill (Thea), Ailish Tynan (Flora), Rachel Hynes (Denise), Roderick Williams (Mel), James Gilchrist (Dov), Alan Opie (Mangus)
Andrew Davies (conductor), Kenneth Richardson (director)
BBC Symphony Orchestra, Students of the Guildhall of Music & Drama
The Knot Garden seems to be the opera of choice for Tippett's centenary. (This concert performance by the BBC SO follows staged productions by Scottish Opera and Music Theatre Wales.) Perhaps it is archetypical of Tippett's work, a set of ideas that matter to the composer personally, worked out in idiosyncratic but striking musical terms and a text rich in literary and cultural allusions that pretty much says explicitly what it is about rather than telling a story that enacts the ideas, all set out in a suggestive but not rigid formal structure. Certainly, The Knot Garden is all about what was going on in the late 1960s when Tippett wrote it: the title probably alludes to R.D. Laing's slim blockbuster Knots, which appeared in 1970, the year The Knot Garden was finished, and which occupied the loos and conversations of the middle class for much of the following decade; more generally, psychotherapy is the medium in which everyone swims; but one character is a tortured "freedom fighter" who finds common cause with the racial oppression of another; and there is a druggy Alice-through-the-Looking-Glass mood to the whole thing.
The action, such as it is, also looks explicitly to the middle-class literary canon. At the centre is a married couple, Faber, an engineer, and Thea, who gardens, who are in therapy with Mangus because their married is in every sense sterile. Faber and Thea have a ward, Flora, who is, or believes herself to be, the object of Faber's desire, and who completes a classic Freudian household. But Magnus, who perhaps like Alice dreams the whole thing, tries to stage a therapeutic drama based on The Tempest, with himself as Prospero, and he calls on a gay couple, Dov, a composer, and Mel, a black writer, to help him in the roles of Ariel and Caliban respectively, until he realises that his magic does not work, when he resigns, using the words of King Lear. There is a "blues", which blurs into boogie-woogie and a revival meeting, an urban would-be heavy-metal ballad, and some other pastiche.
There is also an allusive Platonic-Jungian hierarchy of masculinity: Faber is a creator in the conventional world – he escapes from his marriage by working on factory plans; Magnus is creator of a theatrical illusion; and the problematic pair of Dov and Mel are composer and lyricist, combined creators of opera itself and so of the universe that contains the others, yet servants of the director/therapist who makes their universe into a performance. The relationship between Dov and Mel is complex and, it becomes clear, in trouble, and there is an amusing succinct integration of the argument about words and music in opera and the dynamics of the struggle for identity within a couple's relationship. Since Tippett, who on the record identified with Dov, also wrote his own texts, there is a suggestion in Dov's "theft" of the text of his song from Mel that Tippett was aware that his work, explicitly and often bizarrely personal, is also parasitic on the experiences of others as well as on the musical work of others. There is in particular, a hint of self-consciousness, and maybe of guilt and anxiety, at his appropriation of black American music (in the blues at the end of act one, as well as in A Child of our Time), which on the surface appears to be toe-curlingly right on.
The women are similarly schematic, although less interconnected. They could be seen as the triple goddess – damaged hag Denise, childbearing Thea and virgin Flora – but they are also designed to pair off with the male characters in various unsuccessful and successful ways. Thea is essentially Mother Earth and Nature to Faber's formative power, and she must learn to open up to him as he must learn to value her (an alarmingly Pauline resolution); Denise, a violent force in the outer world, needs to find a personal expression for her desires, which she does in her new relationship with Mel; and Flora needs to accept that not all men are rapists and stop seeing herself purely as a victim of sex. Tippett clearly has an essentialist view of the sexes, but the relationships between the characters are still strikingly between individuals for whom, except for the inexperienced Flora, sex is less important than the act of creation that they have made their own.
Tippett's own act of creation is both highly personal and highly convention in that it was intended for Covent Garden. His libretto asks for effects (the garden turning into a rose garden during Dov and Flora's scene, for example, and the disappearing) and scene changes that still seem almost impossible, although the other two recent production did much-praised things with video projection. Prospero seems obliged to watch the theatre of his dreams dissolve every time. So a concert performance looks like an ideal solution to the problem of staging the opera, since it allows the music to provide the scenery and the imagination of each member of the audience to do the work. This particular staging was well considered and, with a fine cast and cogent performance by the BBC SO, provided an enjoyable and often moving entertainment that fully justified the work, without hiding its period charm.
Alan Opie, in mezzo forte check tweed jacket and tartan bow tie, was a knowing and pompous Mangus, pure Hampstead. Christopher Purves, a serious Handelian thug bass, was generally unsympathetic and snarling as Faber, and there was little sense of his reconciliation with Thea at the end. Karen Cargill, Scottish Opera's Fricka, was spot on as Thea, a gardening goddess. Ailish Tynan as Flora was suitably neurotic and odd, and theatrically adept, part Alice and part clinical study. Rachel Hynes had an undifferentiated force as the tormented Denise, perhaps a Dionysiac force to Mel's black Apollo. Roderick Williams was butch and intelligent as Mel, although he assiduously avoided the implicit but unperformable brutality of his Caliban persona. James Gilchrist, also an expert Handelian, was touching and lyrical as the winged but lonely Dov.