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Lennox BERKELEY (1903 – 1989)
Ruth Op.50 (1955-56)
Jean Rigby (mezzo, Ruth); Mark Tucker (tenor, Boaz); Yvonne Kenny (soprano, Naomi); Claire Rutter (soprano, Orpah); Roderick Williams (baritone, Head Reaper)
Joyful Company of Singers
City of London Sinfonia/Richard Hickox
Recorded: Blackheath Halls, London, September 2003
CHANDOS CHAN 10301 [78:54]

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Berkeley’s music is now fairly well-known and unanimously appreciated for its many qualities. His operas however have fared less well, with the possible exception of the comic chamber opera A Dinner Engagement Op.45 (now available on Chandos CHAN 10219 and which I have still to hear).

Berkeley’s second chamber opera Ruth Op.50, written for the English Opera Group, is a more serious affair than its predecessor. It is in three scenes, each falling into several sections. Eric Crozier’s libretto is based on the biblical story of Ruth, and has a typical Britten-ish character, i.e. an outsider ("The Moabite") confronted by a hostile environment, although with a quite different approach than might have been encountered in a Britten opera. Even if it may seem somewhat contrived, the happy ending in Berkeley’s opera (although it implies some sort of sacrifice) is something almost unimaginable in a Britten opera. The possible exception lies in his church parables for much the same reasons.

In Scene 1, Naomi returns to Bethlehem with her daughters-in-law Ruth and Orpah. The happiness at seeing Bethlehem’s hills again is marred by anxiety ("But, ah, who will remember me"). Naomi encourages Ruth and Orpah to leave her and to return to their homeland; and in her first aria ("Almighty Father, let my cry come unto thee!"), she recalls her earlier hardships, the death of her husband and of her two sons. Orpah is at first undecided, and finally bids Naomi farewell. On the other hand, Ruth decides to stay with Naomi ("Wither thou goest, I will go"). On their way to the city, they come across women who hardly recognise Naomi. In her next aria ("Ah, call me not Naomi, let Mara [bitter] be my name"), Naomi reluctantly accepts her present fate. The women lead Naomi and Ruth away to the city.

Scene 2 opens with the Reapers’ song and the Women join in. It is abruptly cut short by the arrival of Naomi and Ruth. The people’s reaction is to reject them ("Why should we feed our enemy?"), thus in complete contradiction to the humane, generous words of their song ("[they] serve as food to bless the poor, the widow in distress, the hungry orphan, and the fatherless"). The Head Reaper’s kind words are not enough to calm the fury of the reapers and the Women. Boaz, however, manages to calm them, although reapers and women find his words hard to accept. Boaz sends his people back to work. There follows a splendid trio (Ruth, Boaz and Head Reaper). Ruth pleads for mercifulness on the part of Boaz. Scene 2 ends with a duo between Ruth and Boaz, and with the Men’s and Women’s renewed song.

In Scene 3, Naomi and Ruth enter onto a threshing-floor where the harvest celebrations are to take place. Naomi assures Ruth that she shall find happiness with Boaz, but Ruth still has doubts. Men and women are heard approaching singing their harvest song, further leading into their general dance climaxing in Boaz’s solemn prayer. After the people have left, Ruth approaches Boaz and asks him to spread his cloth upon her, so that she may become his wife. At first taken by surprise, Boaz spreads his cloth upon Ruth. They declare their love for each other. After receiving Naomi’s blessing, Boaz summons his people and presents his new wife to them. The third scene - and the opera - ends with a rousing song of praise.

Now, the question is to decide whether Ruth succeeds or fails as an opera. The answer is, I think, twofold. On purely musical grounds, the score is an unqualified success. It contains some of the finest music that Berkeley ever penned. Arias and ensembles are all nicely judged and superbly made; and he works wonders with the small orchestral forces at his disposal. On dramatic grounds, however, the lack of any real action might make a production less successful. In some respects, Ruth is an opera, in much the same way as Vaughan Williams’ The Pilgrim’s Progress, although I believe that it calls for considerable imagination on the director’s part to have it properly staged. The quality of the music is beyond doubt.

In his indispensable book (The Music of Lennox Berkeley, The Boydell Press, 1988, second, revised edition 2003), Peter Dickinson concludes his chapter on A Dinner Engagement and Ruth by writing that "finally the verdict remains open in the absence of evidence through productions and recordings". Now, at long last, we are in a much better position to assess or re-assess Berkeley’s operas. Would it be too much, now, to expect a recording of Castaway and, who know, Nelson in the near future?

Richard Hickox and the present cast undoubtedly give a most convincing rendering of one of Berkeley’s finest scores, which is by far the most important thing to expect from an opera recording. An important release, and definitely not to be missed.

Hubert Culot

An important release, and definitely not to be missed. ... see Full Review

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