MAGIC AND MYSTERY
The plot for an opera can be derived from many sources. With seemingly
endless opportunities for inspiration, it is curious how composers are drawn
to comparable areas of interest. High on the list are fables and fairy tales
inhabiting a world of magic and mystery. Nor is the basic plot an end in
itself: hidden meanings, trips into the subconscious, transfiguration and
symbolic gestures are often contained within the story. If we take a brief
look at the text of three operas, interesting parallels can be found.
The basis of Shikaneder's libretto for Mozart's The Magic Flute
came from Liebeskind's 'Lulu oder Die Zauberflöte', itself published
in Wieland's collection of fairy tales, Dschinnistan. The story combined
with additional magic and ritual - the latter derived from contemporary
freemasonry and Terrasson's novel Sethos with its ancient Egyptian
settings - lifts the libretto out of the fairy tale genre into a work of
profound meaning operating on several levels; primarily the search for enlightenment
and an 'ideal union' by the two main characters, Tamino and Pamina.
Tippett was fully aware of this when he was writing the libretto for
his opera The Midsummer Marriage. In a letter, he described it as
being 'bang in the fantasy world of Zauberflöte'. He saw the setting
in 'the world of symbolic dream theatre' - a concept Covent Garden was unable
to cope with in 1955.
Tippett's opera takes place in the realms of the natural and the supernatural.
His fascination lies in the interaction between the two.
There are two pairs of young lovers in conflict not only with each other
but with the older generation. The 'marvellous' couple are Mark and Jenifer
(Guinevere) - names from Celtic mythology - and the 'everyday' couple are
Jack and Bella, which is how Tippett refers to them.
On the human level it is a story of upset and reconciliation: in other
words a battle of the sexes; and the defeat of Jenifer's business tycoon
father, King Fisher. Only Mark and Jenifer take part in the leading supernatural
manifestations. Their progress is steeped in the Jungian philosophy of 'light'
and 'shadow' that eventually reveals the true self. As in The Magic Flute,
ritual is used to attain an elevated state of consciousness.
Both of the above operas are known to us. The same cannot be said of
Frederick Delius's The Magic Fountain, which was written in 1894-5
when the composer was in his early thirties and living the Bohemian life
The background to the opera's composition is redolent of Delius's sojourn
in America. In 1884, his father lent him the money to set up as an orange
grower in Florida at Solano Grove near Jacksonville. The venture was short-lived
and he soon turned to music. After America, Delius went to study in Leipzig
and then - supported by his father - went to live in Paris.
Like Tippett, Delius fashioned his own libretto with the help of Jutta
Bell, a former neighbour in Florida. It confronts the racial issue head-on,
a subject avoided by many composers. The story is symbolic.
A young European man, Solano (probably named after the composer's orange
grove) sets sail for Florida to find the spring of eternal youth. A young
American Indian girl Watawa is to show him the way. She plans to kill Solano
as a vengeance on the white race. Eternal youth can not be had cheaply.
The Indian Priest predicts that to drink from the fountain unprepared will
result in death. Watawa's destructive desire for vengeance is redeemed by
feelings of love for Solano. They sing a Liebestod which transfigures racial
conflict. Watawa makes the supreme sacrifice and drinks from the fountain
to show Solano the danger. Not wishing to leave her, he also drinks. In
death they are united.
At its first staging in Kiel in 1997, the Frankfurter Rundschau
described the opera as 'a dreamlike journey into the Self'.
While writing the opera, Delius was diagnosed as having syphilis. Did
his plot become a verbal metaphor whereby he sought to return to a younger
pre-syphilis state? A ritualistic cleansing by water to wash away the results
of his hedonistic life-style? We can only conjecture. His libretto has a
sting in the tale. He knew that there is always a price to pay. His was
eventually the ultimate one.
Coincidentally, in 1963, Norman Del Mar (who has never been accorded
the true recognition he so richly deserves) conducted a BBC Radio performance
of The Midsummer Marriage that Tippett described as 'superlative'
and that 'turned the tide in its favour'; 14 years later Del Mar brought
to life The Magic Fountain in a concert performance for the BBC.
The work had been lying dormant for 82 years.
Richard Armstrong will conduct the first UK staging of The Magic Fountain
mounted by Scottish Opera in Glasgow (20 February; 4 & 6 March) and
Edinburgh (26 February). The cast includes Stephen Allen, Anne Mason and
Stafford Dean, with production by Aidan Lang.
The Magic Fountain is published by Boosey & Hawkes
Copyright © Shirley Ratcliffe, 4 February
Scottish Opera is at www.scottishopera.org.uk.