Although composed fifty years ago, about a rural society
which existed fifty years before that, all is clearly recognisable even
today. Lady Bountiful / Billows is alive and well and living in (deeply)
rural England. The excitable local mayor and portentous vicar (now with
a worthy Parish team) survive. The stolid local police superintendent
and the twittering village schoolmistress have gone to an urban environment
in the name of economy. Jack the Lad with his Moll and local children
flourish. Society has changed, but most of the characters, apparently
loved by librettist and composer for the gentleness of their mockery,
abound in village and market town.
That we can share that affection for the characters
on this set is in no small measure thanks to a taut Hickox control of
some very fresh playing by the City of London Sinfonia. Although the
crisp bright sound may be thought ‘thin’ I think that it is entirely
appropriate as the sound of the rural scene.
The Orchestra almost develops its own role as master
of ceremonies of the pastoral proceedings, particularly in some virtuoso
solo and duet instrumental parts. I enjoyed particularly the flute and
clarinet in the Interlude, painting the scene, before Albert’s decision
Of course the problem with a rural society situation,
is that if everyone sang in appropriate accents, most of us would understand
very little. So instead of a Suffolk ‘burr’ everyone sings in good old
dependable BBC English – and there is nothing wrong with that, until
Lady Billows sounds like her housekeeper and sounds like her greengrocer.
That lack of aural distinction is but a small price to pay for clarity
Without departing far from that, Roderick Williams
and Pamela Helen Stephen, as Sid and Nancy, catch almost perfectly the
characterisation of the butcher’s assistant and the baker’s daughter.
Here are the perfectly matched ‘plotters’. From his entry admonishing
the children to the finale of giving the wreath to Albert, Williams
never falters. There is an insouciance of sound which brings mischievous
Sid sharply into focus.
He is matched note for note by Stephen. Hers is a more
complicated characterisation which comes off superbly: from hesitant
protagonist, through contrition, to indignant commentator on the village
elders’ prurience in the last scene. I enjoyed enormously their duet
(and trio with Albert) leading to "We’ll walk to the spinney…".
This was excellent complementary vocal balance supported by just the
right level of orchestral accompaniment.
Of course before we meet Sid and Nancy, the ‘polite’
society of Suffolk ‘set the scene’ for us in that splendid opening of
English self-importance. Plenty of puffed up balloons here for pricking
and with studied gently accuracy Eric Crozier (librettist) and Britten
miss not a target.
Sally Burgess sings Florence, the all-knowing sergeant
major of a housekeeper. There is a warmth of ‘mezzo’ here which
she holds in check. She delivers her rejections of the nominees with
clarity but perhaps not quite sufficient scorn.
Alan Opie’s round baritone as the vicar is the first
example of luxury casting. As you would expect there is a roundness
of superbly delivered and reasonably unintelligent compassion here.
He seems to float his notes of suggested nominees for Sally Burgess
to shoot down. His "Virtue, says Holy Writ…" is a highlight
with delightfully accentuated rounded vowels, tonal colour and dynamics.
His master of the coronation ceremony is carried off with just the same
The superintendent is the deep bass of Stephen Richardson.
A judicious slowness of delivery enables him to display the deep filling
sound and maintain clarity of word. That does not disappear when he
speeds up his delivery to profess his preference for ‘a decent murder’.
The twittery teacher, Miss Wordsworth, sung by Rebecca Evans, is not
an easy role – much of it spent in the higher reaches of the tessitura,
making clarity of diction difficult. Unfortunately this is exacerbated
occasionally by a tendency to replace forte with shrill. This
is a pity because where piano applies there is a silkiness of
delivery. Another potentially self-indulgent casting is that of Robert
Tear as Mr Upfold, the self-important mayor. Tear’s recital of his administrative
achievements is delivered with excellent vocal pomposity and if his
participation in the Threnody is loud that is because that is the role.
It is precisely that problem which I think besets Susan
Bullock. We learn from the curriculum vitae notes of the principal singers
in the accompanying booklet that "she is rapidly establishing herself
as Britain’s leading Wagnerian soprano". I refrain from comment
on that as a statement of achievement; but its importance here is voice
–type guidance. I would agree that there is a Wagnerian influence in
the role as it is usually sung. Perhaps one-day some one will say: let
us try the grand lady of imperiousness at piano rather than fortissimo.
Meanwhile, accepting that this is what Britten intended, Bullock’s account
is accurate if occasionally wayward in vowel pronunciation – now standard
English, now Professor Higgins vowels. I am sorry to say that I found
this Lady Billows unconvincing. The booklet refers to her as an elderly
autocrat. Sadly there was little autocracy here and as I said earlier
"sounds like Florence, sounds like Mum". At which point, and
at the other end of the social spectrum, consider Anne Collins as Mum
described merely as "possessive, narrow minded". There is
acidity in her character and even a touch of brutal domination. Again
none of that is readily apparent. The role is sung with total note accuracy
but too much refinement: in "twenty five quid" the word "quid"
jars, as a word that that voice would not use whereas plainly the greengrocer
would use it.
All that leaves Albert and the children. The children
have a difficult small role: sounding very young but singing some difficult
sections, which are pulled off as well as anywhere. James Gilchrist
sings Albert. His is a lighter tenor which goes well with the role.
Consistencies of pronunciation and note accuracy are self evident in
this slightly ‘flattened out’ version of the role. I would have preferred
to hear a slightly greater accentuation of the dominated Albert in contrast
with the freed Albert with more exuberance in the breaking out. Early
on Gilchrist makes him sound as if he has made up his own mind to avoid
sin rather than having his mind made up for him. However after the trio
(with Nancy and Sid) he develops strongly in "He’s much too
busy…" with a superbly delivered hopeless resignation of "for
what". Gilchrist carries well the burden of Act II after the
Interlude with what sounds like total sobriety when a modicum of excitement
would have been helpful.
The ensembles are outstanding. There is an excellent
balance of voices producing some quite delicious blends of sounds. I
would pick out that at the end of Act I as my personal favourite whilst
accepting that the Threnody runs it a very close second.
The excellent accompanying booklet with its translations
reminds us of the International appeal of Britain’s favourite (?) opera
composer of the last century. I thought the use of the picture by John
Wimbush of A Vegetable Seller on a Street was an example of first
class presentation and packaging.
In conclusion whilst having one or two less dramatic
moments this recording has some particular strengths and is a very welcome
addition to the Chandos library.