Adam de la Halle was a 13th century trouvère
who combined the skills of poet and composer. He wrote
numerous chansons, motets and rondeaux. But he also wrote
plays and his play Le jeu de Robin et de Marion combines
spoken word and music. It is the first surviving secular
drama to mix in music to create a form which we could describe
as opera but is in fact closer to the musical.
subject matter mixes two standard plots. In the first half
we get an encounter between a knight and a shepherdess
(Marion) in which the knight is bested by the shepherdess.
Then when Marion’s lover Robin appears the play describes,
in great detail, the antics and horseplay of the peasants,
including a number of party-games and food-related jokes.
The result is rather difficult to place nowadays, though
its survival in numerous different versions is testimony
to its popularity. The original may have simply been read
and sung by the trouvère or it could have been acted in
the lord’s presence. This new recording by Tonus Peregrinus
attempts to combine these two possibilities.
John Crook reads the play, clear and articulate medieval
French, essaying different voices for the different characters
and projecting the plot well. If this had been the main
basis for the performance, then I would have been content.
But Tonus Peregrinus have attempted to bring the piece
into the 21st century by also performing it
in their own jokey, contemporary translation. The performers
are the singers themselves. In order to clarify the performance,
John Crook is stage-right and the English performers stage-left.
The result is, technically, surprisingly effective and
makes the performance relatively easy to follow. You can
also alter the balance so that one or other performance
(French reading or English play) dominates.
But the performance of the English play leaves a lot
to be desired. Anthony and Rosemary Pitts’ determinedly
contemporary translation is something that will date easily.
Well before the end of the play I was weary of the jokey
manner and inevitable punning. Perhaps something like this
is necessary, because the original play is full of this
sort of horse-play, which would have been embellished in
performance. The rather stilted dramatic performance from
the actor/singers does the English version no favours;
it sounds as if we are eavesdropping on a student romp,
something that you’d only want to do once.
So far, I have not said much about the musical performance.
As might be expected from this group, this is impeccable.
Going on very little, just notations of the melody line,
they have created some little musical gems. But there is
far more text than music and I found myself longing for
the next musical item. The music’s range is not very great
but what there is, is charming and exquisitely performed.
In fact, one of the troubles is that the musical performances
do not seem to belong to the same piece as the English
drama being played out. They match far better the tone
of John Crook’s spoken narration.
The distinguished academic and performer Mary Remnant
provides the majority of the supremely accomplished musical
accompaniment. All the performers are hard working and
multi-task with Anthony Pitts co-authoring the translation,
editing and arranging the music, co-directing the performance
(with singer Joanna Forbes) and playing a number of medieval
instruments. Perhaps this very multi-tasking is the cause
of the performance’s failure; if an outside director had
been brought in they might have been able to give a sense
of drama and shape. As it is, there is too much the feeling
of talent put to waste.
This is very much a mixed bag, but certainly a worthwhile
attempt. Adam de la Halle’s piece is important, even if
it is difficult to bring off. The disc is still worth exploring,
mainly for John Crook’s spoken narration and the musical
performances. So if you do buy it, make sure you alter
the balance before you start and tune out the spoken English
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