The Ice Break (Covent Garden)

New Statesman, July 1977



Sir Michael Tippett's title for his fourth and last opera, The Ice Break (i.e. when it's springtime in the tundras), offers an effective symbol for due changes and new departures. So does its opening scene, an international airport. But then comes an im­pulse to duck and scatter as we hear over our heads the familiar drone of the composer's highflown libretto trying so lard to get down to earth that it crash-lands in flat and flagrant cliché. “You mother-fucking bastard… land him one on the jaw”, and so on; the style, is outspokenly outmoded, like a gin-crazed great-aunt.


    Duck again; here comes the story. Lev is flying in “like a bird”, in a typical winged phrase) after “20 years of camp”. He seems all set for another 20. For a start, he is still not cured of saying things like “a frozen footcloth is the scarf that binds my face” – though not tightly enough to staunch the flow of pretentious quotation. Courageously awaiting him at the airport – a favourite meeting-place for stereotypes – is his wife Nadia. She sensibly left him and the homeland (guess where) years ago and took off to the new world with their baby son, Yuri. He's here too, but not to meet his father. Not he; not sullen and resentful Yuri, the student stereotype. He and his girl-type Gayle have come to hail the arrival of the black champion Olympion (“I am the greatest”), to whom Gayle “offers herself” (cue for simulation). She is seeking in her own person to reverse the white role of overlord. (“I make amends”… “Wow! this chick wants balling?”) Instead she is savagely spurned; but then, she lives for kicks.  Meanwhile the mounting excitement has led to racial tensions.  Mobs of blacks and whites defy each other and the Race Relations Act. Shouted slogans (“Whitey out… Burn, baby, burn”) escalate to ritual slaughter (more simulation, this time to kicking to death, with heavy thuds and agonised screams). Olympion and Gayle are killed (“Bonny Gayle, gone out with the wind”). Yuri is gravely injured. The action is now mystically diversified with psychedelic trips and extraterrestrial visitations. But the astral arrival jeeringly disclaims divinity (“Saviour?!... Me!! You must be joking”). His message is presumably that we must be our own salvation. Nadia seeks hers by going into a rapid decline, no doubt bored to death by Lev’s unremitting quotations. Under the care of Luke, a white doctor, and Hannah, a black nurse, the repulsive Yuri is reborn.

    As I see it, this admittedly tendentious account fairly sums up the composer’s own unfairness to his talents. His declared aim to show (a) the stereotypes and (b) their need for rebirth. But (a) is all-pervading; in the stock characters, in the leaden textual echoes (Eliot, Shaw, etc.) and in the tabloid action (mob clashes as in West Side Story, entry of black gladiators as in Carmen Jones). With stereotypes stamped all over the stage, rebirth has to be confined to the orchestra-pit, where it is overlaid by the brashly brilliant design and production, and stifled by the clumsy libretto. There is certainly new life within the music, stirring in every sense, but it has to be brought out by the instruments rather than evoked by the voices.

    Sometimes the scoring seems stripped to suggest naked vulnerability (as when Lev and Hannah silently seek mutual comfort at the end of Act II). Conversely there are spasmodic surges of regenerative power, with musical archetypes (not stereotypes) of rivers or crowds running amain or amok, in spate or in spite. Sometimes this duality seems thematically related; each is imagined as ambivalent – exhilarating as well as frightening. All the orchestral music is subtly shaded, and hence wholly at odds with the black-and-white conflict of the text. This leads to difficulties or even impos­sibilities of interpretation, which under­standably defeated most of the singers. The exceptions, I thought, were Heather Harper as Nadia, John Shirley-Quirk as Levi and Beverly Vaughn, whose Hannah has a touching quality of innocent empathy. The best interpretations of all, in my view (literally, from a side seat) came from the conductor, Colin Davis. The work is dedicated to him, as he manifestly is to it. Watching him, I could hear why; and this may help to identify its elusive essence. I often felt that I was hearing not operatic but symphonic music, with an inner emotive significance imagined by its composer (as also for example by Berlioz) in visual or verbal terms far fitter for printing on a score, or even showing on a screen, than being enacted as stage drama complete with chorus and choreography.

   In opera properly so called, the music would readily have absorbed all these added components. In this production it just couldn't swallow them; and nor could I; and nor, I believe, will audiences, generally. Under the surface glitter and the thick opacity of The Ice Break there is surely a deep undertow of warm feeling. But it will hardly be a long runner as an opera, though it ay well be the forerunner of new and significant art-forms.