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Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
A Village Romeo and Juliet - Lyric Drama in Six Scenes
Vreli (Marti’s Daughter) - sung by Helen Field; acted by Dana Moravkova
Sali (Manz’s Son) - Arthur Davies; acted by Michel Dlouhy
The Dark Fiddler - Thomas Hampson
Vreli as a child - Pamela Mildenhall; acted by Katerina Svobodova
Sali as a child - Samuel Linay; acted by Jan Kalous
Manz - Barry Mora; acted by Leopold Haverl
Marti -Stafford Dean; acted by Pavel Mikulik
Arnold Schönberg –Chor and ORF Symphonieorchester/Sir Charles Mackerras
Filmed on location in 1989. The audio recording was made in the Grossersaal, Konzerthaus, Vienna Between 1st and 13th February 1989
Bonus Feature: Discovering Delius

DECCA DVD Video 074 177-9 [Opera: 112 mins. Feature: 59 mins]

A Village Romeo and Juliet is generally regarded as the best of Delius’s six operas (although Delius termed this work ‘a lyric drama in six scenes’). It was composed in 1900-01 and first produced in Berlin in 1907, reaching London, with Beecham conducting, three years later.

The source of the libretto was Romeo und Julia auf dem Dorfe, a story in a collection entitled Die Leute von Seldwyla by the Swiss writer Gottfried Keller (1819-90). The action is set in nineteenth-century Switzerland. It tells how a quarrel over disputed waste land set between two farms precipitates financial ruin and near fatality, blighting the lives of Sali and Vreli, the children of the two rival farmers.

Delius’s score is haunting and lyrical. It requires a large orchestra which Delius uses sparingly and tellingly to magical effect. A significant proportion of the work is purely orchestral – much more than in a conventional operatic production. Nature is a major influence, so too is a theme which increasingly obsessed Delius – the transience of life and love.

This production was first issued in 1990 as a purely audio recording on the Decca Argo label (430 275-2), made in Vienna with British soloists, the Austrian Radio Symphony Orchestra and a Vienna-based choir. This Argo recording was the soundtrack of Petr Wiegel’s film that was released not long afterwards. The medium of film freed the work from the constraints of the opera house to allow maximum freedom of expression in natural outdoor surroundings.

This new DVD incarnation offers enhanced pictures and sound - 5.1 Surround and Stereo Sound – scene selection and subtitles in five languages. It is useful to have the English language subtitling because it uses Delius’s final English text not the version used in the earlier Meredith Davies recording. EMI’s fine 1973 Meredith Davies recording with soloists Elizabeth Harwood, Robert Tear and John Shirley Quirk is now available on CD as EMI CDZB 75785.

Regarding first, the visual aspects of Weigel’s film. The natural beauty of mountains and meadows is colourful and convincing, the change in the fortunes of the quarrelling farmers is dramatically underlined by the derelict state of Marti’s farm as compared to its prosperity evident at the beginning of Scene 1; the dream wedding sequence is delightfully innocent, the fairground scene nicely natural and the walk to the Paradise Garden quite enchanting. The vagabonds at the inn are rather overdrawn in their brashness for my taste and surely the Dark Fiddler should make his entrance in this scene standing away from the vagabonds watching the last glow on the high mountains rather than be seen with painted vagabonds draping themselves over him? The ending disappoints, the hay barge (a raft in the film) just drifts down the river, there is no suggestion that it is slowly sinking, just the superimposition of a subsequent newspaper item proclaiming that the two young lovers have drowned. Thomas Hampson, as the Dark Fiddler, shows just how brilliant and expressive an actor he is, conveying a real sense of mystery and menace, yet tenderness and understanding too. The two farmers are well characterised, but Michal Dlouhy’s, for the most part, bland inexpressive face does not engender much sympathy for the character of Sali. Dana Moravkova’s Vreli is more persuasive in suggesting innocence and naivety giving way to a realisation of the way of the world and passionate love.

To the music. I reviewed the recording when it was first released in 1990 and compared it with the celebrated Meredith Davies version. I have not changed my opinion significantly so I will repeat what I wrote then:

‘Davies and Mackerras’s readings differ. Mackerras favours a darker view underlining the tragedy whereas Davies opts for a somewhat brighter treatment. For example, ‘The Walk to the Paradise Garden’, which is a fairly regular concert item on its own, takes ten and a half minutes under Mackerras and, despite a thrillingly poignant climax, tends towards being halting and a tad lugubrious. Davies is shorter by about two minutes; and is more tender and romantically wistful.

‘Sali’s and Vrenchen’s wedding dream sequence also illustrates the differences though both versions are attractive in their ways. Mackerras introduces it with muted colours; deep-sounding rather solemn bells; and a recessed choir. Davies’s wedding is more optimistic with brighter bells and a more forward and sharply-lit choir. You can feel that Elizabeth Harwood is thrilled and ecstatic at the thought of her wedding. On the other hand, Helen Field, although having purity of tone and high agility might just as well have been going to Sunday Matins.

‘Robert Tear, as Sali, in the Meredith Davies recording, is ardent and passionate; but so too is Arthur Davies and he sounds younger. John Shirley Quirk seemed rather uncomfortable as the enigmatic Dark Fiddler (is he a representation of Death, Fate, or Nature, or all three?); Thomas Hampson is more successful, providing more light and shade in a difficult role. The Decca/Argo recording is warm with a wide dynamic range and broad perspectives. The orchestral interlude at the end of Scene II successfully conjures up remote vistas and high mountains and the final scene is well-realised (in sound) with its thrilling Puccini-like duet before the lovers drift off on their sinking barge, choosing death rather than life apart.

‘On balance, the Davies set, which was blessed with a very good recording, by the award –winning team of Christopher Bishop and Christopher Parker, is my choice.’ [Interestingly, the 1973 EMI recording had many now well-known artists in the early days of their careers including: Stephen Varcoe and Martyn Hill, and it featured Benjamin Luxon as the farmer, Manz].

A brief final note before turning to the bonus feature: as with the original Argo box set, this new DVD includes the same brilliant analytical notes by the late and still lamented Christopher Palmer.
Bonus Feature: "Discovering Delius"

This film biography by Derek Bailey was made in 1992 and has never been previously issued on general release. It is a worthy if all too brief look at the life and works of Delius featuring Eric Fenby in what was probably his last recorded interview, and Tasmin Little, Charles Mackerras, Felix Aprahamian, and Robert Threlfall. The film includes many musical examples and some ravishing photographic locations in Florida, Norway and especially the Delius house and garden at Grez-sur-Loing.

A beautiful and often moving visualisation of Delius’s finest opera. The bonus feature on the life and works of the composer makes this a compulsive purchase for all Delians.

Ian Lace

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