I must confess than I have never been a fan of the
operas of Richard Wagner. O.K. there are a number of purple passages
that one would have to have the sensibilities of a block of wood not
to be moved by. But taken as a whole I find his operas too long, too
teutonic and often quite frankly boring. For many years I have kept
this to myself. I remember a long time ago going to hear Götterdämmerung
at Scottish Opera. We watched the first act, went for an Indian
in the second and came back for the immolation! I confess to being unmoved
even by Tristan and Isolde, though have long loved the orchestral
Liebestod. My preference would be to see Ruddigore rather
than Rienzi or perhaps Brigadoon rather than La Bohème.
My friends tell me that, operatically speaking, I am a philistine. But
I stand unmoved.
Perhaps it is just the continental school of opera
that I cannot quite get to grips with. I have always quite enjoyed Vaughan
Williams’ Hugh the Drover and Britten's A Midsummer Night’s
Dream. I even remember being reasonably impressed by Iain Hamilton's
Catiline Conspiracy - no tuneful work that! But if the truth
were known I would rather hear the most obscure piano sonata by an equally
obscure British composer than sit through the most sumptuous performance
So why is A Village Romeo and Juliet one of
my favourite musical works? There is no doubt that much of the musical
content of Delius’s opera derives from his understanding and appreciation
of Wagner. Parsifal is seen as a possible role model. This opera
could not have come into being had it not been for the Wagner ‘tradition’
or is it ‘bandwagon’?
There are two answers to my personal conundrum. Firstly,
I have loved Delius's music ever since I heard an old recording of Beecham
conducting the Song of Summer. I knew the story of Eric Fenby
being asked to imagine sitting on the cliffs far above the sea on the
Yorkshire coast. It appealed to my teenage sense of poetry, English
pastoralism and perhaps nature mysticism. I remember rushing out to
buy the record. After listening to the Song I realised that the
next tune was A Walk to the Paradise Garden. I played it over
and over again and tried to understand what it was that so impressed
me and moved me with this music. I read an epitome of the opera and
realised that it somehow summed up all my adolescent feelings about
the purity and nobility of love. And I was well and truly hooked.
It was not long before I went to the library and borrowed
the score of A Village Romeo and Juliet. Some of my friends gave
me some 'stick' when they saw me wandering round Coatbridge High School
with an opera score tucked under my arm. They would have been much less
surprised if it had been William Alwyn's 1st Symphony.
Fortunately I was able to borrow the original LP boxed set of this recording
from a girlfriend who deeply loved English music and Frederick Delius.
I locked myself into my bedroom and listened to this wonderful music
without a break. I was captivated; and have been ever since.
It was a great pleasure to have this CD to review.
It is like finding an old friend on Friends Reunited after a break of
more than quarter of a century! And it is still as delicious and as
beautiful and as moving as it was nearly thirty years ago!
But this does not answer the question as to why I like
this Delius opera and not Tristan. In many ways the operas are
quite similar. Well, I have always felt that I ought to be an enthusiast
of Tristan and Isolde - and my word I have tried - vocal
score, orchestral score, and even video but to little avail. It was
not until I read some words written by Robert Anderson in Grove that
I suddenly realised the reason. Referring to Delius's masterpiece he
says, 'The result is an operatic masterpiece with drama and music marvellously
integrated, a Tristan and Isolde for the young and innocent.'
It all fitted. I know I would rather listen to Merrie England
than Meistersingers, so why not A Village Romeo and Juliet
rather than Tristan. Perhaps I felt that Delius's score was far
less pretentious than Wagner's. No-one ever told me that I ought to
listen to Fred’s work, that I ought to understand and enjoy it. Au contraire,
people have been amused that I like Delius and have quoted the oft-heard
tale that once you have heard one piece of the old Bradfordian you've
heard 'em all! Perhaps it is the relative simplicity of the story that
appeals to me? Or it may be that I have a huge soft spot for Delius
that is totally lacking for Wagner!
I have listened carefully to this CD. I have played
a few passages over a number of times. It is nice to revisit old haunts.
This is intense music; it is no bucolic romp. Yet it is the contemplative
side of this music that gets to me every time. It is, as Fenby has written
in the programme notes, '[A] contemplative attitude [that] goes far
beyond the reach of time and far beyond the personal tragedy of Sali
In this score I am able to find that Paradise Garden
which I suppose I was in the process of leaving when I was in my last
year at school and had discovered this marvellous opera. In many ways
I have been trying to get back into it ever since. No surprise that
Hodgson's Secret Garden is on of my favourite children's books.
In a Summer Garden also written by Delius and William Baines'
Paradise Gardens are two of my top twenty favourite works - a
Desert Island must. My religious sensibilities are aroused by the 'garden'
imagery of the Song of Solomon, the Hortus Conclusus and the glorious
verse from that book that form the words to Patrick Hadley's fine anthem
My Beloved Spake. But perhaps as Fenby points out, our Paradise
Garden is overgrown, the song of the birds is nearly still and the
beauty of it all is 'smutched' like Ben Jonson's snow.
Listening to this revelatory performance of A Village
Romeo and Juliet has allowed me to slip back into the ‘Paradise
Garden’ for a space. It has helped me to see that it still exists and
that it is possible to remain there for refreshing breaks.
What of the libretto? Well it is hardly the place of
a review to rehearse the story in any great detail, but perhaps a thumbnail
sketch is appropriate.
The libretto was actually compiled by the composer
himself after a couple of unsuccessful attempts to get other translators
to knock Gottfried Keller's story into shape.
Basically it is a tale of a young man and a young woman,
Sali and Vrenchen who have fallen hopelessly in love but do not have
and cannot get their parents’ blessing. In fact there is hatred between
the two families over a land dispute. The land belonged to an itinerant
and illegitimate Dark Fiddler who was unable to inherit due to Swiss
law. The situation becomes impossible and leads to the lovers committing
suicide after having known a short time of bliss. They drown in a barge
on the river after having opened the 'sea cocks.'
The production of this CD is perfect. EMI Classics
are to be congratulated for this re-release. The quality of the sound
is excellent; bearing in mind this is a thirty-year-old recording. Robert
Tear was always one of my heroes from the ’seventies. His rendition
of Sali is ideal. Elizabeth Harwood plays a moving Vrenchen. It was
John Shirley-Quirk who introduced me to the wonderful Songs of Travel
by Ralph Vaughan Williams - settings of poems of one of my favourite
Scottish writers, Robert Louis Stevenson. He gives a superb account
of the Dark Fiddler. The programme notes are very good. They do not
contain a complete libretto, but a condensed résumé of
the plot with textual extracts. Eric Fenby wrote these notes for the
original release on vinyl.
One of the bonuses of this excellent double CD is a
fascinating illustrated talk by Fenby. It covers a large sweep of Delius’s
work and gives a good insight into the workings of an amanuensis. One
of the most moving parts of this talk is Fenby's description of how
the near-blind composer dictated part of Cynara. For someone
who does not know much about Frederick Delius this is the perfect introduction;
from the one who knew the composer better than anyone else (apart from
I cannot recommend this CD too highly. It is now at
super-budget price and I suggest all Delius enthusiasts rush out and
buy it - either for the first time or to replace their vinyl copy (Angel
SBLX-3784; EMI SLS966; HMV Greensleeve EM290404-3). It is a perfect
opportunity to possess for all time one of the most perfect British
operas in one of the benchmark performances of all time.
For me, personally, it is like catching up with my
adolescent dreams. I cannot wait to enter the ‘Paradise Garden’ just
one more time!