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Elizabeth MACONCHY (1907-1994)
The Sofa (1956/7) [39:01]
The Departure (1961) [31:00]
Independent Opera at Sadler’s Wells/Dominic Wheeler
rec. Henry Wood Hall, London, 23 November 2007 (The Departure) and 24-25 November 2007 (The Sofa)
Full cast list at end of review
CHANDOS CHAN10508 [70:12]
Experience Classicsonline

Although best known as a composer of instrumental pieces and symphonic works, Elizabeth Maconchy nevertheless wrote a good deal of vocal and choral music. That said, she turned to opera fairly late in her composing career. The operas were one-acters of fairly short duration. The Sofa plays for thirty-nine minutes and The Departure thirty-one minutes. Some time later she completed another, hardly longer opera The Three Strangers based on a short story by Thomas Hardy. It was completed in 1967.

Ursula Vaughan Williams’ libretto for The Sofa is freely adapted from Le Sofa by Crébillon fils. According to Nicola Le Fanu it was RVW who suggested Crébillon’s play. The story is a fairly simple one. Prince Dominic is a hedonist only concerned by enjoying himself in any way. He flirts with Monique and – to put it bluntly – tries to make love to her; but she resists briefly before succumbing. Enters the Prince’s grandmother who is Dominic’s only source of wealth, but she also happens to have magical powers. Scandalised by his behaviour she transforms him into a sofa. Only when a couple makes love on top of him will he be released from his constricting condition. Three young girls enter and sit on the sofa until they are invited by young men to join the dance. The third young man begs Lucille to stay and begins to flirt with her. Dominic thinks that he will soon be freed but the Suitor offers an engagement diamond ring. They leave from the Sofa/Dominic who is left furious and frustrated. Guests enter and wonder where Dominic can be. There is a toast to his return. When the party leaves the room, Monique reappears accompanied by Edward, “an upper-crust English lad” for whom hunting and country life is more important than anything else. Edward seduces Monique on the sofa. There is no interruption, and Dominic is returned to his normal state. The two men confront and Edward is chased away. Monique having been caught flagrante delicto eventually succumbs. Maconchy devised a lovely score for this comic opera in one act with some affectionate parody of, say, Offenbach: in the girls’ trio (Lucille, Yolande and Laura – track 5). The whole is colourfully scored for small orchestral forces.

The Departure, to a libretto by Anne Ridler, is a considerably more serious work and stands in full contrast to the light, often nonchalant character of The Sofa. Julia is seated at her dressing table and hears funeral music from the distance. She looks out of her window and sees her husband Mark shaking hands with her friends. When Mark returns to the house she realises that he cannot see her, and that it was her own funeral that she was observing. She remembers that she was killed in a car crash. Julia sings of their first meeting. Although he is still unable to see her, they sing a love duet remembering the past years. Mark desperately wants Julia to stay but she is now ready for the hereafter and must depart. The music is appropriately darker although some lighter episodes provide for some contrast. It is also rather more austere and sometimes reminds one of RVW’s great masterpiece Riders to the Sea, particularly so in the impressively moving sections featuring the off-stage chorus.

Both casts of mostly young singers obviously relish every ounce of these scores whereas Louise Poole and Håkan Vramsmo are particularly convincing in The Departure. Dominic Wheeler conducts carefully prepared readings and the instrumental ensemble heartily responds to every nuance in the scores. This superb release is a most welcome addition to Maconchy’s discography that should also appeal to anyone interested in 20th century opera. I now hope that The Three Strangers will soon be committed to disc. This beautifully engineered and elegantly produced released will be in my Records of the Year list.

Hubert Culot

The Sofa
Nicholas Sharratt (tenor) - Prince Dominic
Sarah Tynan (soprano) - Monique
Josephine Thorpe (mezzo) - Dominic’s Grandmother
Alinka Kozári (soprano) - Lucille
Anna Leese (soprano) - Laura
Patricia Orr (mezzo) - Yolande
Patrick Ashcroft (tenor) - A Suitor
George von Bergen (baritone) - Edward

The Departure
Louise Poole (mezzo) - Julia
Håkan Vramsmo (baritone) - Mark





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