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LORD BERNERS (1883-1950)
Le Carrosse du Saint-Sacrement (1923)
Fanfare (1931)
Caprice Péruvien (1938)

Viceroy: Ian Caddy (bar) Martinez: Alexander Oliver (ten) Balthasar: John Winfield (ten) La Périchole: Cynthia Buchan (sop) Thomas d'Esquivel: Thomas Lawlor (bass) Bishop of Lima: Anthony Smith (bass)
BBC Scottish SO/Nicholas Cleobury (Carrosse)
rec Glasgow 16 Aug 1983
Royal Ballet Sinfonia/Gavin Sutherland (Fanfare)
rec London 15 Sept 1999
RTE Sinfonietta/David Lloyd-Jones (Caprice)
rec Dublin 10 Jan 1995
MARCO POLO 8.225155 [79.17]
Crotchet   AmazonUK   AmazonUS

Over the last years Marco Polo have served Lord Berners' music well. This is their fourth Berners record. The central piece is the one-act comic opera Le Carrosse du Saint-Sacrement after Mérimée's comedy. Mérimée is certainly better-known for his novel 'Colomba' and his play 'Carmen' made famous by Georges Bizet. Le Carrosse du Saint-Sacrement was a flop at its earliest stagings. Later revivals were not successful either. In 1917 Yvonne Arnaud staged it again and it seems that this last effort was much more successful. Berners saw Arnaud's work on the play and was fascinated by it. He made it the subject of his only opera, indeed a comédie musicale as he called it. There are eight scenes that follow each other without a break, all set in the office of the Viceroy. Berners' libretto is very close to Mérimée's text. The scene confronting the Viceroy and his secretary, which is much about La Pericola's behaviour, has been somewhat shortened. In fact, in the opera this scene is about the (not so?) ambiguous relationship between La Pericola and Ramon. Berners dispensed with the traditional overture which is why the Caprice Péruvien arranged by Constant Lambert has been used as a substitute for the absent overture (this recording comes from Marco Polo 8.223780). Berners' setting starts rather abruptly and the listener is thrown right into the action without any preamble and the opera unfolds restlessly throughout till its equally abrupt conclusion. The main problem with this opera is that there is actually very little dramatic action and whatever action there may be occurs off stage and is witnessed by the Viceroy watching the events through his telescope. The opera is ON words and Berners saw to it that they may be clearly heard, which is incidentally the case in this recording. There is also little psychology and most characters appear to be clichés. Even the rather improbable "conversion" of La Pericola, the Viceroy's mistress, is yet another cliché. The story is quickly told: The Viceroy is stuck to his chair due to his gout (which he prefers to refer to as "fatigue") and feels rather dispirited because he would like to use his brand new carriage to attend the service in the cathedral. He cannot move his swollen foot and is thus resigned to staying at home and attending to public affairs, a.o. an Indian uprising in a remote part of the country and complaints about his mistress' behaviour. He has words with his private secretary concerning the latter. When La Pericola appears, there ensues a considerable argument which inevitably ends in favour of La Pericola: She gets the new carriage to go to the cathedral. From his window the Viceroy witnesses the accident. The following scene is almost an orchestral entr'acte (most of the Caprice Péruvien derives from this). The town clerk tells the Viceroy of the accident and of various incidents that occurred when La Pericola was on her way to and from the cathedral. The Bishop arrives with La Pericola who has donated the carriage to the Church after having had what she calls a "revelation" by the Virgin. Suddenly the Viceroy's leg is much better! The Bishop agrees to dine with La Pericola and the opera ends with a (mock?) solemn incantation assuring La Pericola of eternal life for her charitable gesture. Again, there is little action and little psychology in all this, but Berners certainly did not want to plumb any great depths. The piece again clearly belongs to the années folles following the First World War. Satie, Le Groupe des Six, Sauguet and Berners shared the same ideals (or lack of them) and their aim then was to entertain, and Le Carrosse du Saint-Sacrement is hugely entertaining. This short opera is a delightful piece that certainly deserves to be heard again, even if its aesthetics may seem a bit dated, as do many art works from that period. Berners' setting is fairly straightforward and the words are swiftly delivered without any respite. His clear and fairly sparse scoring allows for the words to be clearly heard throughout. I find the performance very satisfying: everyone sings and plays with obvious enjoyment. Again, Berners' temperament was obviously attuned to its times and his music partakes of the then prevailing mood of light-headedness and nonchalance. Nevertheless the present revival shows it to be much better than might be expected from a composer sometimes referred to as the 'English Satie', which I find totally wrong: Berners' music is often much finer than Satie's. These Marco Polo releases certainly help put things right again and are to be warmly welcomed.

Hubert Culot

See also review by Rob Barnett

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