Vaughan Williams had a lifelong involvement with opera.
In this he can be compared with Tchaikovsky and Dvořák
both of whom had operatic aspirations but despite isolated or modest
success became better known for their symphonies. The variety of Vaughan
Williams' achievement in the operatic field is multiform. The ballad
opera Hugh the Drover (wince-makingly rustic - frocks
and farmers without the tragic Hardy element) contrasts with the succinct
and powerful Synge one-acter Riders to the Sea. The Poisoned
Kiss is one step away from a musical and contains some of the most
instantly engaging music he ever wrote. This contrasts with Pilgrim's
Progress - a major work he studiously avoided calling an opera -
terming it instead A Morality in the similitude of a dream (a
touch of Martinů's Julietta
here)! At his death he left only sketches for an opera Tom the
Rhymer but in the 1930s he had completed Sir John in Love -
a Shakespearean romantic comedy. Sir John was the last opera
RVW saw having attended performances of it in July and August 1958.
Sir John drew from the composer some of his
most appealing music. He wrote it between 1924 and 1928. It represents
a 'step-change' in language from the twee Hugh the Drover. Hugh
was completed in 1914; premiered by Sargent in 1924. Some of the
material for Sir John originated from music he had written for
Frank Benson's Stratford-upon-Avon Shakespeare productions. He originally
intended calling it the Fat Knight but as the romantic element
rose up within the growing score he switched the title.
We must recall RVW’s close friendship with Holst who
himself wrote at about this time At the Boar's Head, his own
Falstaffian opera. RVW tapped into Holst's use of folksong in that work
and wove songs of the English countryside into the score. However, as
he pointed out, the folk material occupies only 15 of the 120 minutes
of this score. Even where folk material is overtly introduced
there are touches and tunings that surprise. Thus in tr.22 (CD2) there
are Iberian spicings and seasonings and at other times the woodland
enchantment seems dressed in drifts of moonlit snow like a presentiment
of Finzi's In Terra Pax, Rootham's Ode on the Morning of Christ's
Nativity (how shameful that this fine work and Rootham's Second
Symphony remain unrecorded) or The Oxen in Hodie. In tr.23
(CD2) Greensleeves is presented in its warmest plumage, a woodland
soliloquy - caressingly serene.
While it is best known as a Shakespearean opera the
composer interpolated settings of words by Thomas Middleton, Ben Jonson,
John Still, Thomas Campion, Christopher Marlowe, John Fletcher, George
Peele, Nicholas Udall, Philip Sidney, Richard Edwards and Philip Rosseter.
This made of the work the sort of anthology piece we also find in Hodie
and Dona Nobis Pacem.
Of this recording and performance golden opinions remain.
Analogue it may be but the natural sounding and analytical recording
still flatters and delights. The orchestral image is smashingly put
across. You should try the last few moments of tr. 15 of CD2 in which
the yawping and whooping horns are given their glorious head.
This is my father's choice is most lovingly
heartbreakingly sung by Wendy Eathorne as Anne seemingly doomed to the
arms of the slack-brained Slender; Weep eyes break heart indeed!
Her voice is superbly counter-pointed by the oboe. The sequence moves
directly into the emotional complexity of her true lover Fenton's music
which speaks of the turbulence of the Sixth Symphony. This then segues
into Have you seen but a bright lily grow. Fenton is sung by
Robert Tear whose voice was at its transient but delightful peak. The
music that entwines and speaks for the lovers is Delian in its intensity
but never curdled - always cleanly presented. Tracks 5-7 (CD1) are a
wonderful introduction to Vaughan Williams' most tender and most passionate
inspirations. And after some stage comedics we return to this vein in
Gerald English's 'I will my self marry Anne Page'.
The Warlockian-Moeran hurly-burly of works such as
Five Tudor Portraits flickers and boozes its way through the
drinking songs of Falstaff’s dissolute cronies (Bardolph, Nym and Pistol).
The 'maltworms' also wriggle and carouse through When I was a bachelor.
Another highlight comes in the storm of passions in
Ford's ‘cuckold’ aria which would go well by itself in recital. It is
furious and full of emotional bile. It fades into the lovely When
daisies pied, sung by Mistresses Ford and Page: Felicity Palmer
and Elizabeth Bainbridge (trs 14 and 15 respectively).
Also irresistible is Sigh no more ladies just
after the comedy of Falstaff's two identical love letters being read
out to each other by Ford and Page. An exemplar of comic timing. This
exultant writing is the stuff of which the Five Tudor Portraits was
written; another highlight at tr.19 on CD1. That same Skelton work is
prefigured by the dancing delight of There is one mistress Ford
in tr.22. Listen to this and then compare the troubadour song My
Pretty Bess in the final panel of the Tudor Portraits.
The four acts of Sir John are accommodated two
to each CD and each of the discs is generously tracked: 28 on CD1 and
32 on CD2.
The authoritative and wide-ranging notes are by Michael
Kennedy. Texts are given in full.
For those wondering about trying out a new opera in
English let me assure them that this is a score in which the riches
of touchingly orchestrated melody are to the fore. The singers 'act'
as well as sing. Slender is, for example, sung in a way that convinces
that he is not the brightest coin in the purse.
This is not a recording of a live performance but there
are a few limited stage noises and some directional information to keep
you in touch with activity on the mind's stage. The singing is full
of life with voices matched in their fallibility and their greenness
to the characters being played. Meredith Davies has a supple and responsive
approach to a score that, allowing for the occasional piece of lumpen
cod humour, is a treasury of vitality. It is the source of some of the
most limpidly beautiful melodic invention in British music. This applies
to all the lovers: not just to Fenton and Anne but even the foolish
and portly knight and the mature and merry wives of Windsor Forest.
Banish fears of clod-hopping dances, embarrassing smock-Morris
dances and ye olde humour. While those fears are sadly well-placed
in the case of stretches of Hugh The Drover, this Shakespearean
fantasy is cut from an altogether more subtle yet dazzling cloth. This
is an opera-entertainment - fleshy, bumptious, joyous, bibulous and