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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
The Poisoned Kiss
(1936)
An opera in three acts. Libretto by Evelyn Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams
Pamela Helen Stephen, mezzo-soprano - Angelica
Roderick Williams, baritone - Gallanthus
John Graham-Hall, tenor - Hob
Richard Suart, baritone - Gob
Mark Richardson, bass - Lob
Neal Davies, baritone - Dipsacus
James Gilchrist, tenor - Amaryllus
Janice Watson, soprano - Tormentilla
Gail Pearson, soprano - First Medium
Helen Williams, soprano - Second Medium
Emer McGilloway, mezzo-soprano - Third Medium
Anne Collins, contralto - Empress Persicaria
Chorus of Day and Night Voices, Hobgoblins, Witches and Forest Creatures, Milliners and Messenger Boys, Flower Girls, Lovers
Adrian Partington Singers
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Richard Hickox
Rec. Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, 3-6 January 2003
World premiere recording
CHANDOS CHAN 10120 [2CDs: 57:56+58:03 = 115:59]


Vaughan Williams wrote six works for the musical stage (he was working on a seventh, Thomas the Rhymer at the time of his death) but called only two of them simply 'opera'. It was as if he had reservations about mixing florid operatic convention with his own very English 'take' on musical culture. Opera is after all very much bound up with Italianate and Teutonic models - exemplars unsympathetic to Vaughan Williams’ natural inclinations.

Let’s look at the ‘operas’: The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains is called 'a Pastoral Episode', Pilgrim's Progress is a 'Morality'. Hugh the Drover is a 'Romantic ballad opera' with only Riders to the Sea and Sir John in Love sporting the unadorned subtitle 'opera'.

In keeping with this opera-averse practice Vaughan Williams called The Poisoned Kiss, a 'romantic extravaganza'. It is the sort of work where, when we see an equal number of men and women in opposing camps, we should know that 'happy ever after' indicates that, after tribulation, they will pair off. And so it proves for Hob, Gob and Lob (men), assistants to the Wizard Dipsacus and the three mediums (women), assistants to Empress Persicaria. Angelica and Gallanthus pair off and so of course do the romantic leads, Amaryllus and Tormentilla.

This is the one Vaughan Williams opera where the plotline is advanced by both singing and speaking. The casting must be of singers who can act or actors who can sing. There is a substantial amount of speaking and Chandos have redacted much of this to produce a piece that focuses on the music. Not all the spoken dialogue has been removed. There is still sufficient to allow the listener to follow the narrative. The rest can be read in situ in the booklet; spoken dialogue which has not been recorded is reproduced in the booklet against a grey-filled background.

And what of the plot? Empress Persicaria and Magician Dipsacus are disaffected lovers and they plan revenge on each other. The magician's daughter Tormentilla has been brought up on poison so that she kills the first person she kisses. The Empress's son, Amaryllus, has of course, been raised on antidotes. Neither of the young people know about the other’s history. The two meet, fall in love and kiss. Amaryllus falls, seemingly poisoned, but has in fact lost his senses through the pure joy of the moment. The two are separated but eventually the Empress gives in and allows Amaryllus to see Tormentilla. Not only are these two to wed but Empress and Magician are reconciled and their long dead love revives. Their faithful retainers marry. The companions to the young people, Angelica and Gallanthus also marry each other. Well, this is opera so the usual sensibilities and scepticism need to be put on hold. If you can do it for Verdi and Puccini you can do it for Vaughan Williams!

Word games and rhymes are features of The Poisoned Kiss. Examples abound. There is the quickfire rattling rhyming of "drat ... a bat ... a rat .... a cat ... (CD1 tr.3). On CD2 (tr.18): "love in a hut is picturesque ... but". There is the relished Sondheim premonition of "I could do without Tudor .... imitations are cruder" in the by-play between Amaryllus and Tormentilla. Now what a partnership there 'might-have been'. if only Vaughan Williams and Stephen Sondheim had been contemporaries. Sadly they were separated by two generations. The rapier dazzling word-play of The Poisoned Kiss as well as its pantomime-poignancy are the sort of thing you can find in the multi-faceted Into the Woods as well as the intricately rhymed and constructed songs for Mrs Lovett and Joanna and the Fairground hair-cutting ‘duel’ in Sweeney Todd. I couldn’t help thinking about Sondheim when hearing the serenade ‘That’s all very well’ which looks forward to the dysfunctional Robert in Company. But the ‘conquest catalogue’ is a long tradition stretching all the way back to Don Giovanni and no doubt further.

This is a work brimming with good tunes and delightful strokes of imaginative power. For a start there are the thunder and lightning-punctuated quartets of Angelica and Gallanthus and Tormentilla and Amaryllus. The grating and grinding threat of CD1 tr. 2 links with the music for Vanity Fair and for Apollyon in Pilgrim's Progress. It is made even more intriguing by the hiccuping ‘edge’ imparted by the woodwind in CD 2, tr.2 at 1.55.

We must forgive the occasional resort to stagy G&S clichés as in "A sorcerer bold" sung by Neal Davies’s Dipsacus without a smirk. It returns in CD1 tr. 7 in Dipsacus’s song "North wind ... south wind ...". For every wince the tenderer listening souls may suffer there are at least three delights to encounter. Try the lovely serenade at CD1 tr. 8 ‘That’s all very well’. This is the sort of romance heard in My Pretty Bess from VW’s Five Tudor's Portraits; absolutely irresistible.

The ‘Poison Quartet’ is full of cleverly-crafted chatter and runs over with delight (CD1 tr. 10) as does the love duet of Amaryllus and Tormentilla. They sing of the things they love: he of ‘a sea-gull pausing wing stretch'd’ (gloriously inspired writing) and she of ‘a hooded cobra up-reared ... the sting in a cobra's tail’. This is all set to music of relaxed romance; vintage RVW.

Orchestral touches also reward close listening as the exquisite decorative solo violin emotes through a cloud of melody close to the world of the Serenade To Music (CD2 tr. 6). The music develops a Sibelian chatter at CD2 tr. 9 which relaxes into sweetly-contoured string writing from which emerges a bizarre tango. The Sibelius of the theatre music also comes to mind in the light-as-down serenading at CD1 tr.19.

The recording is strongly cast across the board but I must just single out Anne Collins who sounds both suitably mature and adroitly imperious as Empress Persicaria (CD2 tr.10). She too is not denied sensitivity, serenade and delight. Try ‘can you, can you remember?’ (CD2 tr. 17).

Tormentilla’s lullaby to her cobras is really whimsical with her entreaties for ‘anything to soothe my nerves ... vitriol or cyanide’ (remember that she has been brought up on poisons). The gawky humour continues in the hands of the chorus who adopt a Cockney commentary in their own ‘oh-so-perfect’ English in ‘here we come our hands full-laden’ (CD 1 tr. 20). Try their singing of ‘Sent with love to Tormentilla (much as we would like to kill 'er)’. I thought about similar moments in My Fair Lady.

The chorus is also called on to touch on the wellsprings of a very English pastoral beauty. There is some remarkably lovely and vertiginous singing at CD1 tr. 21 which sounds as if Vaughan Williams had provided inspiration for the stratospheric pianissimo writing of Patrick Hadley in The Trees So High as well as for Constant Lambert's Dance of the Followers of Leo from Horoscope.

This work is not wholly like any of the other RVW stage works. Riders to the Sea is unalloyed tragedy and turmoil. Pilgrim’s Progress is spiritual, tormented and finally exalted. Hugh The Drover is rather too ‘cod-rustic’ for my taste. The closest approximation is to Sir John in Love ... but it is only an approximation. The humour of Sir John makes some connection in its portrayal of the antics of the corpulent, horny, sentimental Knight and in the ribald revels of Dr Caius, Slender, Peter Simple, Bardolph, Nym and Pistol. The serenading pages for Fenton and Mistress Anne Page also relate to similarly romantic writing in The Kiss.

There is one other comparator I must mention. I am sure it must have provided some inspiration to Vaughan Williams. His friend, Gustav Holst, who had died four years before the premiere wrote the opera The Perfect Fool in 1921-22. It too is replete with spells, incantations, wizards and spirits. It has a sleepy yawning fool and a host of fairy-tale archetypes. The parallel is very close: Imps and Demons; Gods and Elves; a Richard Dadd 'fairy fellah' scene if ever there was one. Surely there is a link. I am sure that, one of these days, we will be treated to a recording of that opera. BBC broadcasts of studio productions of The Perfect Fool by Groves (1972) and Handley (1995) promise well (after that Sita please ... but that’s another story altogether).

This very strongly cast and executed recording completes the representation of Vaughan Williams' operas on disc and does so 46 years after the composer's death and 64 years after this opera’s premiere in Cambridge on 12 May 1936. By the way the U.S. premiere took place on 21 April 1937 at the State Theater, New York.

This set joins the strong representation of RVW Hickox-conducted operas on Chandos: Sir John in Love (CHAN 9928(2)) and Pilgrim's Progress (CHAN 9652(2)).

One aside. It is good to see prominence given in the booklet to the RVW Society. There is a full page advert on p. 224 of the booklet but no sign of an email address. If there is a wish to promote membership this omission is a missed trick. The set will travel far and wide. I would expect lively interest in the USA for a start. Societies not offering e-mail contact are likely to be passed by. The RVW Society is admirable in its activities and I can well believe its claim to be thriving. How much more would it flourish if the advertisement had recognised that email is a significant medium for promotion and communication generally.

Each of RVW’s stage works, like his symphonies, is very different. The experience of one does not go far in preparing you for hearing another. The Poisoned Kiss is, for all its occasional echoes elsewhere, sui generis, as the lawyers say - one of a kind. Representing a serenade for a summer’s night, it is by no means perfect. While it creaks from time to time don’t deny yourself this music of undemanding delight, witty repartee and romantic enchantment.

Rob Barnett


Detailed Track Listing
Compact Disc One

1 Overture 7:09
Act I
2 No. 2. Opening Chorus: 'Secret are the sounds . . .' 2:43
3 No. 3. Scena. Gallanthus: 'What's that?' 1:38
4 No. 4. Scena. Angelica: 'Day is dawning' 5:54
5 No. 5. Duet. Gallanthus: 'It's really time . . .' 3:07
6 No. 6. Ensemble. Hob, Lob and Gob: 'Here we come . . .' 2:24
7 No. 7. Duet and Chorus. Dipsacus: 'I'm a sorcerer bold' 1:54
8 No. 8. Duet. Amaryllus: 'It's true I'm inclined . . .' 2:41
9 No. 9. Ensemble. Tormentilla: 'Hush, lovely cobra' 2:04
10 Amaryllus: 'Desist, lest you die!' 0:59
11 No. 10. Duet. Amaryllus: 'I know we see . . .' 0:10
12 Amaryllus: 'Blue larkspur in a garden' 3:01
13 No. 11. Ensemble. Dipsacus: 'Who's in my forest?' 0:15
14 Dipsacus: 'North wind, south wind' 1:01
15 Tormentilla: 'Angelica?' 0:29
16 Amaryllus and Gallanthus: 'O, come to our arms' 2:37
17 No. 12. Song. Tormentilla: 'O, who would be . . .' 2:49
18 No. 13. Finale. Dipsacus: 'All is ready!' 3:10
Act II
19 No. 14. Introduction 1:04
20 No. 15. Chorus: 'Here we come' 1:47
21 No. 16. Song and Chorus. Angelica and flower girls: 'By all the powers . . .' 3:36
22 No. 17. Trio. Lob: 'Ho there!' 1:56
23 No. 18. Duet. Angelica: 'It does not appear . . .' 2:17
24 No. 19. Trio. Third Medium: 'If you want to escape' 3:02
Compact Disc Two

Act II (continued)
1 No. 20. Chorus: 'Tormentilla! Tormentilla!' 2:23
2 No. 21. Song and Duet. Tormentilla: 'There was . . .' 5:40
3 No. 22. Ensemble. Amaryllus: 'Twas here it bade . . .' 4:08
4 No. 23. Serenade. Amaryllus: 'Dear love, behold . . .' 3:07
5 No. 24. Duet. Tormentilla: 'Sleeping or waking' 1:27
6 Tormentilla: 'You must not kiss me' 4:23
7 No. 26. Finale. Tormentilla: 'Too dark for me . . .' 2:56
Act III
8 No. 27. Introduction 1:13
9 No. 28. Trio. Mediums: 'Behold our mystic . . .' 3:25
10 No. 29. Ensemble. Empress: 'Monstrous vision!' 1:28
11 No. 30. Ballad. Empress: 'When I was young . . .' 2:48
12 No. 31. Ensemble. Empress: 'You can leave us' 0:43
13 No. 32. Duet. Tormentilla: 'Is my love alive?' 0:28
14 Empress: 'Love breaks all rules . . .' 3:25
15 No. 33. Invocation. Empress: 'Imps and Demons' 2:24
16 No. 34. Ensemble. Empress: 'Come, O gentle powers' 5:36
17 No. 35. Duet. Empress: 'Can you, can you remember' 2:40
18 No. 36. Quartet. All: 'Love in a hut . . .' 1:21
19 No. 37. Sextet. First Medium: 'Horrid monster!' 2:36
20 No. 38. Duet. Gallanthus: 'It's the proper thing to do' 1:58
21 No. 39. Finale. Chorus: 'Love has conquered!' 3:31



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