Tippett The Knot Garden
If it is a sign of a great opera that it grows on each hearing, then The Knot Garden is a great opera. It has something to do, I think, with the way that its characters, so obviously in one sense symbols (look at their names!), do not cease existing when the opera ends (its last line, indeed, is ''the curtain rises''). Tippett himself, in the cycle of Songs for Dov, imagined a possible future for the character closest to him, the musician. But might there not also be songs for the adolescent Flora, the flower who has now opened, freed from the half-imagined, half-real sexual threat of her foster-father Faber, free to dance into the world outside the garden? Songs for Thea, no longer hiding from her marriage in that garden? Songs for Faber, too, no longer retreating in disillusion from a wife who has become ''usual, habitual'' to the business world where she cannot follow? And Denise the freedom-fighter (named for the martyred St Denis) and Mel, the black ''man of honey'', have their songs, perhaps, in Tippett's next opera, The Ice Break. They are real characters, the more so because we have shared with them the self-knowledge they have gained in the knot garden (which is both moving labyrinth, hurling them together in catalytic conjunctions that are not of their choosing, and hortus conclusus, an enclosed secret place in which they may learn what they are seeking, if not yet find it).
The music grows, too, after 'the curtain rises'. The dazzling juxtapositions of vividly strange sounds that are one's first impression (the tense 'electric storm' music for strings and piano that opens the opera, the magic spell for celesta and harp with high flute staccatos that Mangus/Prospero summons up a moment later, the brilliant toccata for violins and brass that opens the drama proper, the beautiful horn chords with carolling solo violins that evoke Thea's garden) are a satisfyingly apt parallel to the cinematic cross-cuttings of the plot but, like them, are under masterfully purposive control. Prospero/Mangus/Tippett, wryly self-deflating 'man of power', has made a musico-dramatic image of harmony achieved through acceptance of diverse individuality: not the least of this opera's achievements is its unity of text, dramaturgy and music.
The superb peformance points this up: all of the singers (with the possible exception of Thomas Carey, who sounds slightly ill at ease) have passed far beyond conquering the music's very considerable technical difficulties into true involvement with their several-layered characters. Their predicaments are real and involving, and it is partly these singers' doing that one finds oneself imagining their sequels. The orchestral playing, too, is very find, and the recording is exceptionally vivid. Everyone concerned with the project, it seems, approached it with the conviction and commitment demanded by a great opera, and it is for us to judge whether it is. I have very little doubt of it.'