Opera: Sir Michael Tippett / The Ice Break

Sir Michael Tippett’s The Ice Break is one of those good old cultural boundary-pushers the the fine arts were infested with in the 1970s. Think: Bernstein’s Mass, Ligeti’s Le Grande Macabre, Glass’ Einstein on the Beach and others of that ilk.

It’s a pretty broad ilk, defined by the urge of aging establishment enfants terribles who were feeling so challenged by the excesses of cutting edge rock/punk/street culture that they were motivated to author works that scream:

“I’m relevant! I’m vital! You grimy hippies or punks or whatever are out there on the streets having all the fun and selling all the records, but while you may mock me for possessing a PhD from fill-in-blank conservatory and have witnessed me schmoozing every octogenarian fine art philanthropist in range I am not to be dismissed out of hand, for I possess edge aplenty! If you need references just call my agent — he’ll confirm there were some prominent communists at my last premiere after-party. And just last month I had lunch with Harold Pinter!”

The recording I have is the Virgin Classics Digital recording from 1991 by the London Sinfonietta conducted by David Atherton featuring Donald Maxwell, Sanford Sylvan, David Wilson-Johnson, Cynthia Clarey, Sarah Walker, Carolann Page, Heather Harper, Bonaventura Bottone, and Thomas Randle.

I’m not gonna lie – I bought it for the cover design. A perfect specimen of that brief art movement from the early 1990s where graphic designers were in love with rotating type with indifferent kerning and throwing it around the cover layout any old way. This was hot stuff back then, let me tell you. Selecting modern classical music for the cover art is as good a reason as any to buy it. As if I have time to do the research in Gramophone.

Receiving its premiere in 1977 at the Royal Opera House in London, The Ice Break concerns a Russian dissident who reunites with his wife, son and son’s girlfriend in London amid a social atmosphere of significant racial strife. There’s a lot of marital discord, boy-girl fighting, race riots, cussing, violence, stomping and maiming of one of the characters and if you’re still with Tippett (his own librettist in this one) after all that, at the opera’s end there’s a downbeat reunion of estranged family members with one of them in a full body cast.  

The libretto has been panned as clumsy and striving for effect. Well, yeah join the club. Just like every modern composer with an English-speaking opera to their credit. It’s ridiculously difficult  – no, impossible – to write lines like “Wow! this chick wants balling?” and “A frozen footcloth is the scarf that binds my face” in a shrieking, swooping abstract modernist vocal style without unintentionally evoking laughter everywhere in the world outside the Patron’s Circle.

But there are lots of touches that blunt the effect of all that stilted delivery. Indeed, the choruses in The Ice Break are quite appropriate in that they tend to sound a bit like more like flash mobs than the slaves chorus from Nabucco.  And there are bits of ‘song’ that would just as well be spat out atonally as sung to score. Like in the second act has this little exchange where Yuri confronts the champion boxer… 

YURI: You motherfucking bastard! … Land him one on the jaw! 

I always like an opera with lines like ‘you motherfucking bastard’. Keeps a guy on his toes. And police sirens too; there are lots of them. More police sirens in opera thank you.  

In Tippett’s yarn the cast is presented more as a matching set of life-size cultural figurines than flesh and blood humans. But I like the dramatic flow and harmonic structural shifts of the work. I would not call the songs memorable; I have listened to this opera in its entirety many times but I have to say that no melody that any character sings has ever stuck with me. Curious that, because Tippett’s body of work contains so many melodically lovely neoclassical num-nums

The Ice Break comes to a close with an austere climax that’s not really a climax, in fact an elegiac whimper that has the effect of a Scud missile falling 3/4 mile short of the mark because Tippett’s got ’tude and after all it was the 20th century, c’mon you didn’t really think Sir Michael was going to wear his heart on his Hardy Amies tailored shirtsleeve and give us a corny tonal resolution, did you? Did you, you motherfucking bastards? 

This 20th century opera has been called prophetic for the 21st and I suppose it is, in the general sense that society has gotten a hell of a lot more tribal and chaotic since 1977 with tribal alliances similar to those in this work shifting quickly and people’s lives get frequently crushed between the mobs as they grind against each other like tectonic plates in a thermal zone. I can see it being revived with gusto, as this 45 year-old work’s subject material has great marketing potential for just about any opera company anywhere.